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.
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