Experience with speech sounds is not necessary for cue trading by budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus)

Mary Flaherty, Micheal L. Dent, James R. Sawusch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The influence of experience with human speech sounds on speech perception in budgerigars, vocal mimics whose speech exposure can be tightly controlled in a laboratory setting, was measured. Budgerigars were divided into groups that differed in auditory exposure and then tested on a cue-trading identification paradigm with synthetic speech. Phonetic cue trading is a perceptual phenomenon observed when changes on one cue dimension are offset by changes in another cue dimension while still maintaining the same phonetic percept. The current study examined whether budgerigars would trade the cues of voice onset time (VOT) and the first formant onset frequency when identifying syllable initial stop consonants and if this would be influenced by exposure to speech sounds. There were a total of four different exposure groups: No speech exposure (completely isolated), Passive speech exposure (regular exposure to human speech), and two Speech-trained groups. After the exposure period, all budgerigars were tested for phonetic cue trading using operant conditioning procedures. Birds were trained to peck keys in response to different synthetic speech sounds that began with "d" or "t" and varied in VOT and frequency of the first formant at voicing onset. Once training performance criteria were met, budgerigars were presented with the entire intermediate series, including ambiguous sounds. Responses on these trials were used to determine which speech cues were used, if a trading relation between VOT and the onset frequency of the first formant was present, and whether speech exposure had an influence on perception. Cue trading was found in all birds and these results were largely similar to those of a group of humans. Results indicated that prior speech experience was not a requirement for cue trading by budgerigars. The results are consistent with theories that explain phonetic cue trading in terms of a rich auditory encoding of the speech signal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0177676
JournalPloS one
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2017
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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