Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 156, Issue 3, pp 763–773 | Cite as

Geographic variation in White-throated Sparrow song may arise through cultural drift

  • Scott M. RamsayEmail author
  • Ken A. Otter
Original Article


Geographic variation in song may arise to facilitate assortative mating among locally adapted individuals or to increase ability to communicate within local neighbourhoods. Alternatively, geographic song variation may be functionally neutral, emerging as a by-product of idiosyncrasies of founder effects and song learning in peripheral populations. We studied differences in the terminal notes of songs in White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) in a peripheral population found west of the Rocky Mountains. Unlike the common triplet of notes found in terminal strophes of the main distribution of this species in eastern North America, birds in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, had terminal notes composed of doublets. We mapped song variation on an east–west transect through central Alberta, Canada, but were unable to find a sharp division between areas where the terminal notes shift; instead, we found evidence of a cline of increasing frequency of doublet endings from east to west. We performed playback experiments of local versus foreign song types in populations where doublet terminal strophes (Prince George, BC) versus triplet terminal strophes (Algonquin Park, ON) predominate. We found a significant difference between the populations, with the western birds responding more strongly overall than the eastern birds, and males in both populations responding more strongly to the doublet-ending song type. Our results do not support the origination of regional variation to discriminate among local populations, but are consistent with neutral cultural shifts.


White-throated Sparrow Song Regional variation Dialect formation Cultural shift 


Geografische Gesangsvariationen bei der Weißkehlammer durch kulturelle Drift

Geografische Unterschiede im Gesang können auftreten, um assortative Partnerwahl zwischen lokal angepassten Individuen zu ermöglichen oder um die Fähigkeit zur Kommunikation in der lokalen Umgebung zu steigern. Alternativ können geografische Gesangsvariationen funktional neutral sein, entstehend sowohl als Nebenprodukt der Eigenart von Gründereffekten als auch aus erlernten Gesängen peripherer Populationen. Wir untersuchten Unterschiede in den Gesangsenden von Weißkehlammern Zonotrichia albicollis einer Randpopulation westlich der Rocky Mountains. Im Gegensatz zu der gewöhnlichen Triole in der Endstrophe der Art in ihrem Hauptverbreitungsgebiet im östlichen Nordamerika, bestehen die Endstrophen von Vögeln in Prince George, British Columbia, Kanada aus einem Doppellaut. Wir erfassten die Gesangsvariationen auf einem Ost-West Transekt durch Zentral-Alberta, Kanada. Es war jedoch nicht möglich, eine scharfe Trennung zwischen den Gebieten zu finden, wo sich die Gesangsenden ändern. Stattdessen fanden wir Anzeichen für eine ansteigende Frequenz der Doppellautendungen entlang eines Ost-West-Gradienten. Wir führten Playback-Experimente mit lokalen und fremden Gesangstypen in Populationen durch, wo die Doppellautendungen (Prince George, BC) gegenüber den Triolen am Ende der Gesangsstrophen (Algonquin Park, ON) überwiegen. Es konnte ein signifikanter Unterschied zwischen den Populationen festgestellt werden, bei dem die westlichen Vögel deutlich stärker reagierten als die östlichen Vögel. Die Männchen beider Populationen antworteten deutlich starker auf den Gesangstyp mit der Doppellautendung. Die Ergebnisse zeigen nicht, dass aufgrund regionaler Gesangsvariationen lokale Populationen unterschieden werden können. Sie sind jedoch konsistent mit der Hypothese der neutralen kulturellen Drift.



We thank the following for assistance in the field: Eileen Brunsch, Sarah Atherton, Marcelo Mora, Nicole Barker, Simon Hall and Paula Peplinski. Mark Phinney provided field recordings from Dawson Creek, BC. Logistical support was provided by UNBC and Algonquin Wildlife Research Station. Permission to conduct research in Algonquin Park was granted by Ontario Parks. This research was funded through NSERC Discovery Grants to both authors, and internal research grants from WLU to SMR. We thank two anonymous reviewers whose comments helped improve the paper.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyWilfrid Laurier UniversityWaterlooCanada
  2. 2.Ecosystem Science and Management ProgramUniversity of Northern British ColumbiaPrince GeorgeCanada

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