Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ofer Tchernichovski

Committee Members

Mark Hauber

David Lahti

Carolyn Pytte

Sebastien Deregnaucourt

Subject Categories

Animal Studies | Behavioral Neurobiology | Behavior and Ethology | Cognition and Perception | Cognitive Neuroscience | Developmental Neuroscience | Experimental Analysis of Behavior | Ornithology


zebra finch, vocal development, group cohesion, statistical learning, video playbacks, avian vision


Social animals learn during development how to integrate successfully into their group. How do social interactions combine to maintain group cohesion? We first review how social environments can influence the development of vocal learners, such as songbirds and humans (Chapter 1). To bypass the complexity of natural social interactions and gain experimental control, we developed Virtual Social Environments, surrounding the bird with videos of manipulated playbacks. This way we were able to design sensory and social scenarios and test how social zebra finches adjust their behavior (Chapters 2 & 3). A serious challenge is that the color output of a video monitor does not match the color vision of zebra finches. To minimize chromatic distortion, we eliminated all of the colors from the videos, except in the beak and cheeks where we superimposed colors that match the sensitivity of zebra finch photoreceptors (Chapter 2). Birds strongly preferred to watch these manipulated ‘bird appropriate’ videos. We also designed Virtual Social Environments for assessing how observing movement patterns might affect behavior in real-time (Chapter 3). We found that presenting birds with manipulated movement patterns of virtual males promptly affects the mobility of birds watching the videos: birds move more when virtual males increase their movements, and they decrease their movements and ‘cuddle’ next to virtual males that stop moving. These results suggest that individuals adjust their activity levels to the statistical patterns of observed conspecific movements, which can explain zebra finch group cohesion. Finally, we studied the song development process in the absence of social input to determine how intrinsic biases and external stimuli shape song from undifferentiated syllables into well-defined categorical signals of adult song (Chapter 4). Do juveniles learn the statistics of early sub-song to guide vocal development? We trained juvenile zebra finches with playbacks of their own, highly variable, developing song and showed that these self-tutored birds developed distinct syllable types (categories) as fast as birds that were trained with a categorical, adult song template. Therefore, the statistical structure of early input seems to have no bearing on the development of phonetic categories. Overall, our results uncover social forces that influence individual behaviors, from motion coordination to vocal development, which have implications for how group structures and vocal culture are maintained.