Songbirds are important models for understanding the mechanisms and fitness consequences of imitative vocal learning. Although the effects of early-life environmental and social conditions on song learning are well-established, the impact of early sound exposure has received surprisingly little attention. Yet recent evidence hints at auditory sensitivity in songbird embryos, including in the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), a classic model species for song learning. Here, we tested whether prenatal exposure to incubation calls—highly rhythmic parental vocalisations produced on the nest—affected song learning in zebra finches. Embryos were exposed in the egg to either incubation (treatment) or contact (control) calls, and after hatching were reared in a large colony. The playback treatment did not affect song complexity nor the accuracy of song copying from the social father, but instead increased learning of non-paternal song syllables. This, in turn, improved males’ mounting success in mating trials. These effects may be attributable to changes in juvenile social behaviours, as playback also influenced male behaviour during mating trials. Our study provides the first experimental evidence that prenatal acoustic environment affects song learning and courtship behaviour in songbirds, thereby raising interesting questions on the role of innate versus acquired biases for vocal learning.
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