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What is the whistle all about? A study on whistle songs, related male characteristics, and female song preferences in common nightingales

Abstract

In many passerine species certain song structures have evolved to convey information to conspecific males or females. For example, in the common nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, the ‘whistle part’ is a striking acoustic feature of some song types. Whistle songs have been suspected to be particularly well suited to attract females and/or to be important during female choice, but this has never been tested directly. In this study, we used a two-pronged approach for addressing the function of whistle songs in intersexual communication. First, we analysed relationships between whistle song features and male characteristics reflecting overall male quality. We found that the number of whistle songs produced and acoustic consistency of single whistle elements predicted male body measures, i.e., males who sang more whistle songs were heavier and larger, and produced whistle elements with higher consistency. Second, we conducted playback experiments with females either with or without whistle songs. Females responded more strongly to whistle songs by moving and vocalizing more during the whistle playback. We conclude that whistle songs might play an important role in nightingale mating, as they evoke high arousal in females, and different whistle song features may signal different aspects of male quality to females.

Zusammenfassung

Der Pfeifgesang der Nachtigall: korrelierte Männchenmerkmale und weibliche Gesangspräferenzen

Bei vielen Singvogelarten haben sich bestimmte Gesänge entwickelt, die an artgleiche Männchen oder Weibchen adressiert werden. So sind beispielsweise die sogenannten Pfeifstrophen ein sehr auffälliges Merkmal im Gesang der Nachtigall Luscinia megarhynchos. Obwohl dieser Pfeifgesang bereits seit Längerem im Verdacht steht eine besondere Bedeutung vor allem bei der Werbung der Weibchen zu haben, existierte hierfür bislang kein direkter Nachweis. In der vorliegenden Studie wurde diese für den Verpaarungskontext postulierte Funktion des Pfeifgesanges unter Anwendung zweier verschiedener Ansätze genauer untersucht. Zum einen wurde geprüft, inwieweit sich Beziehungen zwischen spezifischen Aspekten des Pfeifgesanges und anderen Männchenmerkmalen, die im Allgemeinen die Qualität eines Männchens anzeigen, nachweisen lassen. Hier ergaben die Analysen, dass die Häufigkeit der vorgetragenen Pfeifstrophen im nächtlichen Gesang der Nachtigall stark mit bestimmten Körperabmessungen männlicher Tiere korreliert. So sangen schwerere und größere Männchen in der Regel mehr Pfeifstrophen. Ein ähnlicher Zusammenhang ließ sich auch bezüglich einer erhöhten Kopiertreue beim Vortragen der einzelnen aufeinanderfolgenden Pfeifelemente nachweisen. Darüber hinaus wurde die Wirkung des Pfeifgesanges auf weibliche Nachtigallen untersucht. Hierzu wurden den Weibchen verschiedene Männchengesänge vorgespielt, die entweder einen hohen Anteil an Pfeifstrophen aufwiesen, oder aber gar keine Pfeifstrophen enthielten. Dabei reagierten die Weibchen eindeutig stärker auf die Gesänge mit hohem Pfeifstrophenanteil. Aufgrund dieser Befunde kommen wir zu der Schlussfolgerung, dass der Pfeifstrophengesang der Nachtigall in der Tat eine wichtige Rolle in Verpaarungskontexten übernimmt, da er zum einen stimulierend auf die Weibchen wirkt und zum anderen als Indikator für diverse Qualitätsaspekte der Männchen fungieren kann.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Sarah Kiefer, Kim Geraldine Mortega, Konstanze Kallabis, Christina Teutscher for assistance in the field and in bird rearing. Also, we thank Michael Weiss and Sarah Benhaiem for statistical advice, and Hansjörg Kunc and an anonymous reviewer for valuable comments on the manuscript. CB was funded by Berlin Funding for Graduates (Elsa-Neumann-Stipendium des Landes Berlin). We followed the Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Research, and all experiments comply with the current laws of Germany. Bird banding was granted by the Landesumweltamt Brandenburg on behalf of the Vogelwarte Hiddensee. Experiments with females were conducted under permission of the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, Berlin, no. Reg 0128/07.

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Correspondence to Conny Bartsch.

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Communicated by M. Naguib.

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List of recordings provided to the Animal Sound Archive at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

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Bartsch, C., Hultsch, H., Scharff, C. et al. What is the whistle all about? A study on whistle songs, related male characteristics, and female song preferences in common nightingales. J Ornithol 157, 49–60 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-015-1245-y

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Keywords

  • Song category
  • Song consistency
  • Male quality
  • Field data
  • Female choice
  • Playback experiment