Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 55, Issue 4, pp 341–348 | Cite as

Pitch shifts and song structure indicate male quality in the dawn chorus of black-capped chickadees

  • Peter J. Christie
  • Daniel J. Mennill
  • Laurene M. Ratcliffe
Original Article


The fee-bee song of male black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) is considered a single-type song that singers transpose up and down a continuous frequency range. While the ability to shift song pitch in this species provides a mechanism for song matching as an aversive signal in male-male territorial song contests, the functional significance of this behaviour during the “solo” performances of males during the dawn chorus is unclear. We analysed the dawn chorus songs and singing behaviour of males whose winter-flock dominance status we determined. We used correlation analysis to show that pitch shifts were accompanied by changes to other fine structural characteristics in song, including temporal and relative amplitude parameters. We also found that songs of socially dominant males and songs of their most subordinate flockmates could be distinguished using these methods by the way they performed a between-note frequency measure accompanying pitch shifts. That is, a ratio measure of the internote frequency interval remained constant for songs of high-ranking birds despite changes in absolute pitch, while low-ranking males sang a smaller ratio as they shifted to higher absolute pitches. These findings identify previously unrecognised variation in the songs of black-capped chickadees. More importantly, they indicate a mechanism by which pitch shifting during the dawn chorus of black-capped chickadees could provide a reliable indicator of relative male quality.


Black-capped chickadees Dawn chorus Male quality Pitch shifts Song structure 



We gratefully acknowledge the efforts of all the individuals who helped in collecting our recordings and in song analysis: Dev Aiama, Ryan DeBruyn, Amy MacDougall, Bridget Meigs and Nicole Vreeswyck Wilson. We also thank the management and staff of the Queen’s University Biological Station for their support and John Toohey as well as the Curtis, Lundell, Warren, Weatherhead-Metz and Zink families for access to adjacent properties. This research was supported by American Ornithologists’ Union research awards to P.J.C and D.J.M., Animal Behavior Society research awards to P.J.C and D.J.M., an E.A. Bergstrom Memorial Research Award to D.J.M., a Society of Canadian Ornithologists’ Baillie Award to D.J.M., Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) postgraduate scholarships to D.J.M. and an NSERC research grant to L.M.R.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter J. Christie
    • 1
  • Daniel J. Mennill
    • 1
  • Laurene M. Ratcliffe
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada

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