Male cowbirds vary the attractiveness of courtship songs with changes in the social context

in Behaviour
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Courtship-signalling theory often incorporates the assumption that males must consistently produce the highest-intensity displays they can achieve, thereby indicating their underlying quality to females. Contest-signalling theory, in contrast, assumes that flexible signal performance is routine. The two frameworks thereby suggest conflicting predictions about male flexibility when the same signal operates in both intrasexual and intersexual communication. Sexual competition often occurs within complex social environments where male displays can be received by potential mates, rivals, or both at once. In brown-headed cowbirds’ breeding flocks, for example, multiple males sometimes vie directly for a single female’s attention; at other times males have opportunities to sing to females without interference. We tested whether cowbirds vary the intensity of their signalling across contexts like these. We recorded songs from males courting females both with and without a male competitor in sight. We then played those recordings to solitary, naïve females in sound attenuation chambers, and also to a naïve aviary-housed flock. The songs males had produced when they could see their competitors were more attractive, eliciting more copulatory postures from naïve females and more approaches from birds in the flock. Results suggest high-intensity displays function within a larger, flexible signalling strategy in this species, and the varying audience composition that accompanies social complexity may demand flexible signalling even in classic display behaviours such as birdsong.

Male cowbirds vary the attractiveness of courtship songs with changes in the social context

in Behaviour



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    Schematic of the 9-chambered experimental box used in the song-recording phase, showing eight perimeter cages housing males (♂) surrounding a central enclosure where target females (♀) were placed. Adjacent male cages were 25 cm apart, a distance comparable to that from which males sing to one another in competitive bouts under natural conditions. Each pair of males was recorded by a dedicated Sennheiser ME-66 directional microphone, placed equidistant from the centres of the two males’ perches. Raising and lowering the removable screens separating adjacent male cages did not produce a measurable effect on the quality of recordings across the two experimental conditions.

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    Comparison of song-potency scores in the Sequestered and Open conditions, by male, for the first (a) and second (b) playback experiment. A male’s potency scores across the two playback experiments had a 0.89 Pearson correlation for the competition condition; the correlation for the Sequestered-condition songs was 0.06. Error bars reflect the mean (±1 SEM) copulatory responses across females in the playback experiments.

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    Mean acoustic values for songs in the Open and Sequestered conditions.

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    Pair of songs by male ‘MO’ used in Playback 1. The song on top (MO-A) is from the Sequestered condition; MO-C is from the Open condition. Clearly the same song type, each consists of three successive note clusters, a single high inter-phrase unit (IPU, a feature which has related to female preference in past studies but was rare among the songs in our sample), and a terminal whistle. In this case, MO’s Open song is slightly higher amplitude than his Sequestered song, but this was not true of Open songs overall. As with 7 of 8 song-pairs in both playback experiments, females preferred MO’s Open song.

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