Dr. Christopher Sturdy
University of Alberta

Natural Vocal Categories in Songbird Acoustic Communication: Mechanisms, Models and Mysteries that Remain

Songbirds are one of the most popular model systems for understanding vocal learning, production, and perception, and are thought to be an excellent model with which to understand human vocal communication, that is, speech. My collaborators, students, post-docs and I have been examining one particular aspect of songbird communication, the production and perception of natural "vocal" categories, and their role in songbird acoustic communication. I will present a series of studies, within the context of a general theoretical framework of vocal categories in acoustic communication, that address issues in categorization from both a bottom-up (note types) as well as a top-down (species) approach using bioacoustical analyses, operant conditioning and recently, statistical and neural network approaches. I will attempt to make the case that open-ended categorization not only is a fundamental proximate mechanism underlying acoustic communication not only in songbirds, but also is involved in a highly analogous manner in human speech production and perception. I will describe our current results and outline our future directions that will attempt to lead to a more complete understanding of acoustic communication in songbirds and, ultimately, in animals.