ten Cate, C., Spierings, M., Hubert, J. & Honing, H. (2016). Can birds perceive rhythmic patterns? A review and experiments on a songbird and a parrot species. Frontiers in Psychology: Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00730

While humans can easily entrain their behavior with the beat in music, this ability is rare among animals. Yet, comparative studies in non-human species are needed if we want to understand how and why this ability evolved. Entrainment requires two abilities: (1) recognizing the regularity in the auditory stimulus and (2) the ability to adjust the own motor output to the perceived pattern. It has been suggested that beat perception and entrainment are linked to the ability for vocal learning. The presence of some bird species showing beat induction, and also the existence of vocal learning as well as vocal non-learning bird taxa, make them relevant models for comparative research on rhythm perception and its link to vocal learning. Also, some bird vocalizations show strong regularity in rhythmic structure, suggesting that birds might perceive rhythmic structures. In this paper we review the available experimental evidence for the perception of regularity and rhythms by birds, like the ability to distinguish regular from irregular stimuli over tempo transformations and report data from new experiments. While some species show a limited ability to detect regularity, most evidence suggests that birds attend primarily to absolute and not relative timing of patterns and to local features of stimuli. We conclude that, apart from some large parrot species, there is limited evidence for beat and regularity perception among birds and that the link to vocal learning is unclear. We next report the new experiments in which zebra finches and budgerigars (both vocal learners) were first trained to distinguish a regular from an irregular pattern of beats and then tested on various tempo transformations of these stimuli. The results showed that both species reduced the discrimination after tempo transformations. This suggests that, as was found in earlier studies, they attended mainly to local temporal features of the stimuli, and not to their overall regularity. However, some individuals of both species showed an additional sensitivity to the more global pattern if some local features were left unchanged. Altogether our study indicates both between and within species variation, in which birds attend to a mixture of local and to global rhythmic features.

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