, Volume 55, Issue 5, pp 415-430
Date: 19 Dec 2003

A review of hypotheses for the functions of avian duetting

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Abstract

Avian duets are striking for the remarkable precision with which duetting partners sometimes coordinate their songs. Duetting species are taxonomically diverse, and the form of their duets varies. The reasons some birds duet when most do not remains unclear despite numerous hypotheses for its function. I review work done so far on duetting, discuss evidence for and against hypotheses for its functions, and highlight approaches useful for future research. The four hypotheses that appear most promising are that individuals join their partners’ songs to form duets: (1) to avoid being usurped from a partnership, (2) to prevent their partner being usurped, (3) as a collaborative display in defence of some resource, or (4) to signal commitment to their partner. These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, and duetting is likely to have multiple roles both within and among species. However, much basic research is still required. Characteristics of duets have rarely been quantified in detail, and information about variability among species in the precision of duetting is necessary, not only to test hypotheses about function, but also to define duetting more precisely. Quantifying the relative frequencies of alternative vocal strategies (for example, remaining silent when a partner sings versus joining in to form a duet) between species and in different contexts will help to determine why partners coordinate their songs to form duets. Furthermore, social systems and sex roles in duetting species are poorly understood, yet understanding these is critical to determining the functions of avian duetting.

Communicated by A. Cockburn