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Male response to an aggressive visual signal, the wing wave display, in swamp sparrows

Abstract

Signaling often involves complex suites of behaviors that incorporate different sensory modalities. Whatever modality is used to establish that a signal functions in communication researchers must demonstrate that receivers respond to it. The territory defense response of male swamp sparrows involves a variety of behaviors that includes both vocal and visual displays. One of these, the “wing wave” display, is a distinctive movement that predicts physical attack. Here, we use robotic taxidermic mounts paired with song to test the hypothesis that wing waving is a signal and, specifically, that male receivers respond to wing waving as a signal of aggressive intent. As predicted, subjects responded more aggressively to the mount during wing waving trials than during stationary trials. A second experiment demonstrated that this effect cannot be attributed simply to increased attention to movement. Less expectedly, subjects did not alter their own display behavior in response to wing waving as compared to a static mount. We conclude that the wing wave display in the context of singing is a signal that functions in male–male aggressive communication. Questions remain, including whether wing waving functions as a signal in the absence of singing and whether wing waving and song are redundant signals or communicate different information.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Jason Dudley at Whistlin’ Wings Taxidermy, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, for preparing the taxidermic mount used in the wing waving experiment, and Meng Kang and Martin Steren for their assistance with the design and creation of the actuator mechanism and controller used to animate this mount. We thank Susan Peters for her support throughout the study and for her help with preparing playback stimuli. Robert Lachlan kindly provided his photo of a wing waving swamp sparrow. Thanks to three anonymous reviewers whose suggestions improved the manuscript. Funding was provided by the Duke University Office of the Provost; access to field sites was granted by the Pennsylvania State Game Commission, and logistical support in the field was provided by the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology of the University of Pittsburgh.

Ethical standards

All work conforms to the ABS/ASAB guidelines for the treatment of animals in behavioural research and teaching and was approved by the Duke Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (protocol no. A061-11-03) and the University of Pittsburgh Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (protocol no. 12030268).

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Correspondence to R. C. Anderson.

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Communicated by D. Rubenstein

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Anderson, R.C., DuBois, A.L., Piech, D.K. et al. Male response to an aggressive visual signal, the wing wave display, in swamp sparrows. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 67, 593–600 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-013-1478-9

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-013-1478-9

Keywords

  • Animal communication
  • Aggressive signal
  • Visual display
  • Animal robot
  • Wing wave
  • Swamp sparrow