Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 57, Issue 2, pp 187–196

Chick-a-dee call syntax, social context, and season affect vocal responses of Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis)

  • Barbara A. Clucas
  • Todd M. Freeberg
  • Jeffrey R. Lucas
Original Article


Chick-a-dee calls in many chickadee (Poecile) species are common vocal signals used in a diversity of social contacts. The calls consist of four notes, A, B, C, and D, which follow simple rules of syntax (note ordering and composition) to generate many unique call types. We used field playbacks with Carolina chickadees, P. carolinensis, to ask whether violations of a syntactical rule affected their vocal responses. We show that chickadee responses to typical calls (e.g. AAAACCCC and CCCCDDDD) differ from responses to atypical calls (e.g. CACACACA and DCDCDCDC) depending on playback note composition, season, and social context (presence of heterospecifics). In the fall/winter, playbacks of typical calls with A and C notes elicited the greatest number of A and B notes in chick-a-dee call responses and typical calls with D notes elicited the greatest number of C notes, when in the presence of heterospecifics. In contrast, the corresponding atypical calls did not elicit similar responses. This suggests communicative significance is lost in calls that violate a rule of syntax in the fall/winter. In the spring, neither chickadee feebeefeebay song rate nor chick-a-dee calls responses differed by playback type. We suggest that call syntax is less salient for mated pairs in the spring than it is for fall/winter flocks that rely more on conspecific communication for foraging success and flock cohesion. This study represents the first experimental evidence that chickadees attend to both note composition and ordering in chick-a-dee calls.


Carolina chickadee Chick-a-dee call Poecile Syntax Vocal communication 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara A. Clucas
    • 1
    • 2
  • Todd M. Freeberg
    • 1
    • 3
  • Jeffrey R. Lucas
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA
  2. 2.Animal Behavior Graduate GroupUniversity of California at DavisDavisUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of TennesseeKnoxvilleUSA

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