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Laurene Ratcliffe and Daniel Mennill


Within a network of communicating individuals, animals may gather information about the relative quality of conspecifics by eavesdropping on their signalling interactions. For territorial male songbirds, eavesdropping may be a low-cost, low-risk method for assessing the relative quality of the males around them. We used a three-speaker playback design to evaluate whether male black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) respond differently to two simulated countersinging intruders who differ only in relative features of their singing performance. We arranged three loudspeakers in an equilateral triangle at the center of playback subjects' territories. After luring males to the first loudspeaker by broadcasting non-song vocalizations, we played songs from the remaining loudspeakers to simulate a countersinging interaction between two male intruders. During the interactions, one simulated intruder consistently overlapped the songs of the other, a behaviour thought to be a signal of directed aggression in songbirds. Territorial male chickadees discriminated between the simulated intruders by preferentially approaching the loudspeaker broadcasting the overlapping signal, suggesting that males eavesdrop on other males' countersinging interactions. Male responses to playback support the idea that overlapping is a more threatening signal than being overlapped. Responses varied with the dominance status of the subject. High-ranking males approached the overlapping loudspeaker in 15 of 16 cases whereas low-ranking males approached the overlapping speaker in only 5 of 10 cases, suggesting that males of different quality may use different tactics for territorial defense.

Peter Christie, Daniel Mennill and Laurene Ratcliffe


The two-note fee-bee song of male black-capped chickadees functions during the dawn chorus, in part, as a sexual signal across large distances. How song structure might encode information about male quality, however, remains unclear. We studied the availability of cues to male social rank (a proxy indicator of male quality), within the acoustic structure of dawn chorus songs of male chickadees whose flock dominance status we determined the previous winter. We used analysis of variance and discriminant function analysis to demonstrate that five temporal, frequency or relative amplitude features of song can predict individual identity but not the category of social rank (dominant versus subordinate) to which individuals belong. After transmitting chickadee songs through the forest and re-recording them at four broadcast distances, we found that song structure continued to effectively predict singer identity by our statistical methods despite significant acoustic degradation for as long as songs remained audible (up to 80 m). In particular, the relative frequency interval between the two notes is both the most invariant between-male measure and among the most individually distinctive. We conclude the structure of dawn chorus songs could function across large distances to signal the identity of familiar singing males whose relative quality is known to the listener from other interactions (such as encounters within winter flocks).

Jennifer Foote, Laurene Ratcliffe, Daniel Mennill and Lauren Fitzsimmons

Allison H. Hahn, Lauren M. Guillette, Marisa Hoeschele, Daniel J. Mennill, Ken A. Otter, Thibault Grava, Laurene M. Ratcliffe and Christopher B. Sturdy

In songbirds, male song is an acoustic signal used to attract mates and defend territories. Typically, song is an acoustically complex signal; however, the fee-bee song of the black-capped chickadee is relatively simple. Despite this relative simplicity, two previous studies (Christie et al., 2004b; Hoeschele et al., 2010) found acoustic features within the fee-bee song that contain information regarding an individual’s dominance rank; however each of these studies reported a different dominance-related acoustic cue. Specifically, the relative amplitude of the two notes differed between the songs of dominant and subordinate males from northern British Columbia, while the interval pitch ratio differed between the songs of dominant and subordinate males from eastern Ontario. In the current study, we examined six acoustic features within songs from both of the chickadee populations (northern British Columbia and eastern Ontario) examined in these previous studies and used bioacoustic analyses and discriminant function analyses to determine whether there is a consistent dominance-related acoustic cue across both, or in each of these populations. Consistent with the previous findings, the current results indicate that relative amplitude differs based on dominance status in the songs from British Columbia; however, our results failed to reach significance with songs from Ontario. These results suggest that acoustic cues that signal a male’s dominance in this species vary with geographic location. Furthermore, examining songs from these two locations and one additional location in northern British Columbia, we found that discriminant function analyses could correctly classify songs based on geographic location. Considering the broad extent of the species’ range, black-capped chickadee song is considered relatively invariant; however, our results suggest that there is geographic variation in songs, although the differences are subtle compared to geographic song variation in other species.