A critical function of singing by male songbirds is to attract a female mate. Previous studies have suggested that the anterior forebrain system is involved in this courtship behavior. Neural activity in this system, including the striatal Area X, is strikingly dependent on the function of male singing. When males sing to attract a female bird rather than while alone, less variable neural activity results in less variable song spectral features, which may be attractive to the female. These characteristics of neural activity and singing thus may reflect a male's motivation for courtship. Here, we compared the variability of neural activity and song features between courtship singing directed to a female with whom a male had previously formed a pair-bond or to other females. Surprisingly, across all units, there was no clear tendency for a difference in variability of neural activity or song features between courtship of paired females, nonpaired females, or dummy females. However, across the population of recordings, there was a significant relationship between the relative variability of syllable frequency and neural activity: when syllable frequency was less variable to paired than nonpaired females, neural activity was also less variable (and vice-versa). These results show that the lower variability of neural activity and syllable frequency during directed singing is not a binary distinction from undirected singing, but can vary in intensity, possibly related to the relative preference of a male for his singing target.
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