Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 61, Issue 8, pp 1267–1274 | Cite as

Soft song in song sparrows: response of males and females to an enigmatic signal

  • Rindy C. AndersonEmail author
  • Stephen Nowicki
  • William A. Searcy
Original Paper


Low-amplitude “soft song” is used by a variety of songbirds; in some species during aggressive encounters, in others during courtship, and yet others in both these contexts. In song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), soft song has thus far been observed only in aggressive encounters, where its production is a more reliable predictor of attack than any other signaling behavior. We used song playback to test the response of both male and female song sparrows to soft song. The design of the playback experiments took into account the existence of two classes of soft song: crystallized soft song, which consists of song types also found in the broadcast repertoire, and warbled soft song, which consists of less-structured song types not found in the broadcast repertoire. Female song sparrows responded with significantly less courtship display to the playback of crystallized soft song than to that of normal broadcast song, and response to warbled soft song was if anything lower than to that of crystallized soft song. Male song sparrows responded equally aggressively to normal broadcast song as to crystallized soft song, and equally aggressively to warbled soft song as to crystallized soft song. The female results support the conclusion that neither form of soft song functions in courtship. The male results suggest that the reliability of soft song as a signal of aggressive intent is not maintained by a receiver retaliation rule.


Soft song Song sparrow Melospiza melodia Bird song Aggressive signaling 



We thank the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pymatuning State Park for access to the study sites, the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, University of Pittsburgh, for logistical support, and Barbara Ballentine, Melissa Hughes, Jeremy Hyman, and Kim Rosvall for discussion. Financial support was provided by grants from the National Science Foundation to WAS (IBN-0315566) and to SN (IBN-0315377). The experiments described herein comply with the current laws of the USA.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rindy C. Anderson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Stephen Nowicki
    • 1
  • William A. Searcy
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyUniversity of MiamiCoral GablesUSA

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