Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 160, Issue 1, pp 217–227 | Cite as

The buzz segment of Savannah sparrow song is a population marker

  • Heather WilliamsEmail author
  • Clint W. Robins
  • D. Ryan Norris
  • Amy E. M. Newman
  • Corey R. Freeman-Gallant
  • Nathaniel T. Wheelwright
  • Daniel J. Mennill
Original Article


Different components of learned birdsongs change at different rates across generations, and the rate of change may correspond to the information carried by each component. To characterize the role of the buzz segment of Savannah sparrow songs, we examined recordings from southeastern Canada and the northeastern US and fully characterized buzz segments in songs recorded from two populations: one on Kent Island, NB, Canada and another in Williamstown, MA, USA. Buzzes varied geographically: Kent Island buzzes had higher mean frequencies and shorter pulse periods than Williamstown buzzes and the differences between the two populations persisted over time. Population-specific buzz characteristics also appeared to be resistant to change. Variants appeared on Kent Island in the late 1980s and were learned by some younger birds; however, these buzz variants disappeared by 2011. We conducted a playback experiment and found that males from both populations had longer responses to local buzzes. Therefore, buzz structure varies geographically; population characteristics of the buzz persist through time despite the introduction of variant forms; and territorial males discriminate between buzzes from different populations. The learned buzz segment of the song may thus serve as a population marker for Savannah sparrows.


Song Cultural evolution Dialect Population Playback Passerculus sandwichensis 


Das Buzz-Element des Grasammer-Gesanges ist ein Populationsmarker Verschiedene Komponenten des erlernten Vogelgesanges verändern sich über Generationen hinweg unterschiedlich schnell. Diese Veränderungsrate entspricht möglicherweise dem Informationsgehalt der einzelnen Komponenten. Um die Rolle des sogenannten Buzz-Elements (ein gleichförmiges Schnarren, engl. buzz) des Grasammer-Gesanges zu charakterisieren, haben wir Tonaufnahmen aus Südost-Kanada und Nordost-USA untersucht und sämtliche Buzz-Elemente des Gesanges von zwei Populationen ausgewertet: eine Population von Kent Island, New Brunswick, Kanada und eine weitere von Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. Das Schnarren unterschied sich geographisch: Auf Kent Island wies das Schnarren eine höhere mittlere Frequenz und eine kürzere Pulsdauer auf als in Williamstown. Diese Differenz zwischen den zwei Populationen blieb über die Zeit bestehen. Die Eigenschaften des populationsspezifischen Schnarrens scheinen überdies beständig gegen Veränderung zu sein. Obwohl andere Buzz-Varianten auf Kent Island in den späten 1980ern aufgetaucht sind und von einigen jungen Vögeln erlernt wurden, verschwanden diese wieder bis 2011. Wir führten Playback-Experimente durch und fanden heraus, dass die Männchen beider Populationen länger auf lokales Schnarren reagierten. Zusammenfassend kann man sagen, dass die Buzz-Struktur geographisch variiert, die populationsspezifischen Eigenschaften des Schnarrens trotz der Einführung neuer Varianten über die Zeit bestehen bleiben und territoriale Männchen zwischen dem Schnarren unterschiedlicher Populationen unterscheiden können. Das erlernte Buzz-Element des Gesanges könnte daher als ein Populationsmarker für die Grasammer dienen.



We thank the Lewis family for making field studies in Williamstown possible. We are grateful to the many individuals who contributed to the corpus of Kent Island Savannah sparrow recordings, especially Clara Dixon, Patrick Kane, Don Kroodsma, Iris Levin, Jamie Smith, and Meredith Swett. We thank the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and the Macaulay Library for making their song recording archives available online. Manuel Morales provided valuable advice about statistical analyses. This paper represents contribution No. 273 from the Bowdoin Scientific Station. The work described here was funded in part by National Science Foundation OPUS award number 0816132 to NTW, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grants to DRN and to DJM, and a Groff Foundation Grant to Williams College.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. Procedures were carefully considered with respect to their effects on the birds, and were reviewed and approved by the Bowdoin College Research Oversight Committee (2009-18 r2011), the Williams College IACUC (WH-D-09), and the University of Guelph Animal Care Committee (08R601). Studies were carried out as specified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (banding permits 02109 and 22516) and the Canadian Wildlife Service (banding permit 10789D). All experiments complied with the current laws of the US and Canada.

Supplementary material

10336_2018_1611_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (97 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 97 kb)


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Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biology DepartmentWilliams CollegeWilliamstownUSA
  2. 2.Department of Integrative BiologyUniversity of GuelphGuelphCanada
  3. 3.Department of BiologySkidmore CollegeSaratoga SpringsUSA
  4. 4.Department of BiologyBowdoin CollegeBrunswickUSA
  5. 5.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of WindsorWindsorCanada
  6. 6.School of Environmental and Forest SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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