Acoustic cues to individual identity in the rattle calls of common blackbirds: a potential for individual recognition through multi-syllabic vocalisations emitted in both territorial and alarm contexts

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Vocal signals convey many types of information, and individually recognizable cues can benefit signallers and receivers, as shown in birdsongs that are used in the contexts of mating and territoriality. Bird calls are typically less complex than songs and thus are likely to convey less information. However, the rattle calls of some species serve a dual function, being emitted as an anti-predator and deterrence signal, and thus may encode information on individual identity. We investigated these questions in the common blackbird (Turdus merula), which emits complex rattle calls in both territorial and alarm contexts. The vocalisations of free-living males were elicited and recorded by playing back songs of unknown males in birds’ territories (territorial context) and also while approaching individuals (predator context). These song-like highly-structured multi-syllabic calls typically had three types of elements. Acoustic and statistical analyses revealed, through elevated repeatability indexes, that most of the acoustic measurements used to describe the complexity of the calls (structural, temporal and frequency parameters) were highly variable, due to inter-individual differences. The size of the call and the characteristics of the starting element only were able to discriminate a high portion of the individual calls. Beyond the very well studied songs of oscines, calls therefore deserve more attention as they also carry a potential for conveying information on individual identity.

Acoustic cues to individual identity in the rattle calls of common blackbirds: a potential for individual recognition through multi-syllabic vocalisations emitted in both territorial and alarm contexts

in Behaviour

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Figures

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    Examples of the different types of the rattle call’s global structure (A, B and C) and illustration of some acoustic measurements. C indicates the chook element, S indicates the starting element, I indicates the internal element and E indicates the ending element. Numbers following these letters indicate the number of each of these elements found in the exemplar call. The acoustic parameters that reflect the global structure of the calls are illustrated on the first spectrogram (A). On the second spectrogram (B), some of the frequency parameters that we measured on each element are presented. The temporal parameters, which were measured on each of the elements, are illustrated on the third spectrogram (C).

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    Sound spectrograms of the rattle calls from five male common blackbirds (B5, B17, B23, B27 and B37). Above each spectrogram is the ID number of the caller, with the number of the call recorded. In this example the two vocalisations presented for B17 were composed of two rattles, illustrating how we counted the number of rattle calls in a bout. These examples illustrate large inter-individual variation, compared to a low intra-individual variation, allowing a high potential for individuality coding. Beyond the differences in the global structure of these calls the shape of the same types of elements differ between individuals: B17, B23 and B27 all have a global structure SRI (see Figure 1) but the starting and the internal elements of B27’s calls differ from those of the two other individuals. B5’s calls show a SRIE structure, whereas the calls of B37 have an SAIE structure (Figure 1). A third call from B37 is shown in Figure 1C for further comparison of the low intra-individual variation.

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    Boxplot illustrating high variation in the size of the rattle call (represented by the variable ‘PC1 structure’, which includes the duration and the number of elements in the rattle) of the different individuals.

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    Scatterplot illustrating the first two discriminant functions of the rattle calls of eleven male common blackbirds. The calls that were assigned to the same individual are represented with the same symbol (see legend for ID). Calls that were not assigned to the individual they belong to are identified with the ID of the real caller next to the symbol.

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