The hypoglossal motor neurons that innervate the vocal organ (syrinx) of the male zebra finch show a selective, long-latency (50-millisecond) response to sound. This response is eliminated by lesions to forebrain song-control nuclei. Different song syllables elicit a response from different syringeal motor neurons. Conspecific vocalizations may therefore be perceived as members of a set of vocal gestures and thus distinct from other environmental sounds. This hypothesis is an avian parallel to the motor theory of speech perception in humans.