Hormonal regulation of brain circuits mediating male sexual behavior in birds

Gregory F. Ball, Jacques Balthazart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

154 Scopus citations


Male sexual behavior in both field and laboratory settings has been studied in birds since the 19th century. Birds are valuable for the investigation of the neuroendocrine mechanisms of sexual behavior, because their behavior can be studied in the context of a large amount of field data, well-defined neural circuits related to reproductive behavior have been described, and the avian neuroendocrine system exhibits many examples of marked plasticity. As is the case in other taxa, male sexual behavior in birds can be usefully divided into an appetitive phase consisting of variable behaviors (typically searching and courtship) that allow an individual to converge on a functional outcome, copulation (consummatory phase). Based primarily on experimental studies in ring doves and Japanese quail, it has been shown that testosterone of gonadal origin plays an important role in the activation of both of these aspects of male sexual behavior. Furthermore, the conversion of androgens, such as testosterone, in the brain to estrogens, such as 17β-estradiol, is essential for the full expression of male-typical behaviors. The localization of sex steroid receptors and the enzyme aromatase in the brain, along with lesion, hormone implant and immediate early gene expression studies, has identified many neural sites related to the control of male behavior. The preoptic area (POA) is a key site for the integration of sensory inputs and the initiation of motor outputs. Furthermore, prominent connections between the POA and the periaqueductal gray (PAG) form a node that is regulated by steroid hormones, receive sensory inputs and send efferent projections to the brainstem and spinal cord that activate male sexual behaviors. The sensory inputs regulating avian male sexual responses, in contrast to most mammalian species, are primarily visual and auditory, so a future challenge will be to identify how these senses impinge on the POAâ€"PAG circuit. Similarly, most avian species do not have an intromittent organ, so the projections from the POAâ€"PAG to the brainstem and spinal cord that control sexual reflexes will be of particular interest to contrast with the well characterized rodent system. With this knowledge, general principles about the organization of male sexual circuits can be elucidated, and comparative studies relating known species variation in avian male sexual behaviors to variation in neural systems can be pursued.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)329-346
Number of pages18
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 15 2004


  • Aromatization
  • Copulatory behavior
  • Estrogens
  • Periaqueductal gray
  • Preoptic area
  • Testosterone

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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