Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 192, Issue 12, pp 1279–1285 | Cite as

Signalling through acoustic windows: nightingales avoid interspecific competition by short-term adjustment of song timing

  • Henrik Brumm
Original Paper


The function of bird song is closely linked to sexual selection through female choice and male–male competition, and thus variation in communication success is likely to have major fitness consequences for a singing male. A crucial constraint on signal transmission is imposed by background noise, which may include songs from other species. I investigated whether singing nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) avoid temporal overlap with the songs of other bird species in a playback experiment. I analysed the temporal song patterns of six males, each of which were exposed to songs of other species. The nightingales significantly avoided overlapping their songs with the playback songs, and started singing preferentially during the silent intervals between the heterospecific songs. This timing of song onset produced a greater variability in pause duration compared to the nightingales’ undisturbed solo singing. These findings suggest that birds adjust their song timing to avoid acoustic interference on short temporal scales, and thus are able to improve the efficiency of acoustic communication in complex sonic environments. Moreover, the results indicate that temporal song patterns can be affected by the songs of other species, and thus such influences should be taken into account when studying bird song in the field.


Animal communication Acoustic masking Bird song Luscinia megarhynchos Noise 



Several students and members of staff of the Behavioural Biology Group at the Freie Universität Berlin provided skilful help with the handrearing. The research group was generally supervised by Dietmar Todt and Henrike Hultsch, and funding was provided by the German Research Foundation (award To 13/30-1). Many thanks are due to Tina Sommer and Christoph Lange, who shared their song recordings with me, and to Nigel Mann for the nightingale drawing used in Fig. 2. Furthermore, I am most grateful to Luke Rendell for coding the randomisation tests. He, Peter Slater, and two anonymous referees gave helpful comments on the manuscript which were much appreciated. While analysing the data and writing the manuscript I was supported by an Emmy Noether fellowship from the German Research Foundation (award Br 2309/2-1). The experiments described in this study comply with the “Principles of animal care”, publication No. 86-23, revised 1985 of the National Institute of Health, and also with the current laws of the Federal Republic of Germany.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.AG Verhaltensbiologie, Institut für BiologieFreie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.School of Biology, Bute BuildingUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsUK

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