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Aggression and multi-modal signaling in noise in a common urban songbird


Anthropogenic noise may disrupt signals used to mediate aggressive interactions, leading to more physical aggression between opponents. One solution to this problem is to switch signaling effort to a less noisy modality (e.g., the visual modality). In the present study, we investigate aggressive behaviors and signaling in urban and rural male European robins (Erithacus rubecula) in response to simulated intrusions with or without experimental noise. First, we predicted that urban birds, living in noisier habitats, would be generally more aggressive than rural birds. We also predicted that during simulated intrusions with experimental noise, robins would increase their physical aggression and show a multi-modal shift, i.e., respond with more visual threat displays and sing fewer songs. Finally, we expected the multi-modal shift in response to noise to be stronger in urban birds compared to rural birds. The results showed that urban birds were more aggressive than rural robins, but an increase in aggression with experimental noise was seen only in the rural birds. Urban but not rural birds decreased their song rate in response to noise. Contrary to the multi-modal shift hypothesis, however, there was no evidence of a concurrent increase in visual signals. These results point to a complex role of immediate plasticity and longer-term processes in affecting communication during aggressive interactions under anthropogenic noise.

Significance statement

Human activity has an enormous effect on wildlife, including on their social behavior. Animals living in urban areas often tend to be more aggressive than those living in rural areas, which may be due to urban acoustic noise making communication between individuals more difficult. In a study with a common songbird, the European robin, we investigated the role of urban acoustic noise in aggression and territorial communication. Urban robins were more aggressive than rural robins, and additional noise in the territory increased aggression in rural but not urban robins. While urban robins decreased their singing effort with additional noise, they did not increase visual signals concurrently. These results suggest that noise can indeed make animals behave more aggressively although the effect may depend on how noisy it is already. These results further our understanding of how human-made noise changes animal communication and social behavior.

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The raw data and the R-code to reproduce the analyses reported in the manuscript are available in the supplementary materials.


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We wish to thank the reviewers for greatly improving the quality of this manuscript with their thorough commentary.


This study was funded by the British Ornithological Union Small Ornithological Research Grant to ÇÖ.

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Correspondence to Çağla Önsal.

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Ethics approval

This study did not require an ethics committee approval. All procedures used in this study follow the ASAB/ABS guidelines for the treatment of animals in behavioral research and teaching. Subjects were not captured or handled before, during, or after any of the trials. Time spent within a territory did not exceed 15 min per trial, and 30 min per day.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Communicated by H. Brumm

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Önsal, Ç., Yelimlieş, A. & Akçay, Ç. Aggression and multi-modal signaling in noise in a common urban songbird. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 76, 102 (2022).

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  • Multi-modal signaling
  • Territoriality
  • Anthropogenic noise
  • Multi-modal shift
  • European robin