Behavioural Ecology


, Volume 145, Issue 3, pp 504-509

First online:

Heavy metal pollution affects dawn singing behaviour in a small passerine bird

  • Leen GorissenAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Antwerp (CDE) Email author 
  • , Tinne SnoeijsAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Antwerp (CDE)
  • , Els Van DuyseAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Antwerp (CDE)
  • , Marcel EensAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Antwerp (CDE)

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Although several studies have suggested that behavioural measures may be more comprehensive than other biomarkers for indicating an organism’s health or welfare, this has rarely been investigated in free-living terrestrial vertebrates. Here we examine the expression of dawn singing behaviour in a free-living small songbird in relation to environmental pollution. We compared the singing behaviour of male great tits Parus major inhabiting an area extremely polluted with heavy metals with that of males inhabiting areas of low(er) pollution (at 4 and 20 km distance from the pollution source). Males at the most polluted site had a significantly smaller repertoire size than males at the two other sites. They also produced a significantly lower total amount of song during the dawn chorus than the males at a distance of 4 km from the pollution source. Our results, although non-experimental and obtained in field conditions, strongly suggest that heavy metal pollution might affect the expression of singing behaviour. Taking into account that previous studies were not able to detect clear, straightforward differences between the health of great tits at the most polluted site and at 4 km distance from the pollution source, our results suggest that the singing behaviour of great tits may be a useful indicator of environmental stress at the population level.


Biomarker Contaminant exposure Developmental stress Repertoire size Singing behaviour