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Discrimination of acoustically similar conspecific and heterospecific vocalizations by black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus)

Abstract

Chickadees produce a multi-note chick-a-dee call in multiple socially relevant contexts. One component of this call is the D note, which is a low-frequency and acoustically complex note with a harmonic-like structure. In the current study, we tested black-capped chickadees on a between-category operant discrimination task using vocalizations with acoustic structures similar to black-capped chickadee D notes, but produced by various songbird species, in order to examine the role that phylogenetic distance plays in acoustic perception of vocal signals. We assessed the extent to which discrimination performance was influenced by the phylogenetic relatedness among the species producing the vocalizations and by the phylogenetic relatedness between the subjects’ species (black-capped chickadees) and the vocalizers’ species. We also conducted a bioacoustic analysis and discriminant function analysis in order to examine the acoustic similarities among the discrimination stimuli. A previous study has shown that neural activation in black-capped chickadee auditory and perceptual brain regions is similar following the presentation of these vocalization categories. However, we found that chickadees had difficulty discriminating between forward and reversed black-capped chickadee D notes, a result that directly corresponded to the bioacoustic analysis indicating that these stimulus categories were acoustically similar. In addition, our results suggest that the discrimination between vocalizations produced by two parid species (chestnut-backed chickadees and tufted titmice) is perceptually difficult for black-capped chickadees, a finding that is likely in part because these vocalizations contain acoustic similarities. Overall, our results provide evidence that black-capped chickadees’ perceptual abilities are influenced by both phylogenetic relatedness and acoustic structure.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant and Discovery Accelerator Supplement, an Alberta Ingenuity Fund (AIF) New Faculty Grant, a Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) New Opportunities Fund (NOF) and Infrastructure Operating Fund (IOF) grants along with start-up funding and CFI partner funding from the University of Alberta (UofA) to CBS. All animal studies were conducted in accordance with the Canadian Council on Animal Care Guidelines and Policies. All procedures performed involving animals were conducted with approval from the Animal Care and Use Committee for Biosciences for the University of Alberta, and the University of Calgary Life and Environmental Sciences Animal Care Committee. Chickadees were captured and research was carried out under an Environment Canada Canadian Wildlife Service Scientific permit, Alberta Fish and Wildlife Capture and Research permits, and City of Edmonton Parks permit. We thank the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics (The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH) and the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (Ithaca, NY) for recordings used as acoustic stimuli. We also thank our research assistant Shawna Dawson for her contribution to stimulus preparation and Al Denington, Isaac Lank and Lou Omerzu for their technical assistance.

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Correspondence to Christopher B. Sturdy.

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Hahn, A.H., Campbell, K.A., Congdon, J.V. et al. Discrimination of acoustically similar conspecific and heterospecific vocalizations by black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). Anim Cogn 20, 639–654 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-017-1087-5

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Keywords

  • Acoustic discrimination
  • Bioacoustic analysis
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Categorization
  • Operant conditioning
  • Songbird