, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 251-259

Culturally correct song dialects are correlated with male age and female song preferences in wild populations of brown-headed cowbirds

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Abstract

Variation in vocal behavior among local populations of songbirds may be significant to females in mate choice. In a study of dialect populations of brown-headed cowbirds, estradiol-implanted females from two dialects held the pre-copulatory lordosis posture longer in response to playback of the local flight whistle song than to foreign whistle types from adjacent and more distant dialects. Females were held in captivity for a relatively brief period prior to testing and received no tutoring so discrimination was based solely on experience in the wild. This is the first study to show evidence of discrimination by female cowbirds based on flight whistle type. Evidence is presented from one of the study dialects that the majority of yearling male cowbirds are vocally distinct from resident adults in having either foreign or incomplete local whistles. Although these yearlings are fully mature sexually, they have little or no mating success. The correlation between female whistle preference and male mating success suggests that the ability to give the correct local whistle type may be a characteristic used by females to assess age and quality of a potential mate. A learned female preference for the predominant local song type may be a factor in the stability of these dialects by making it adaptive for males to conform to the local dialect.

Communicated by G.M. Klump