Field Experiments on the Perception of Song Types by Birds

  • Andrew G. Horn
Part of the NATO ASI Series book series (NSSA, volume 228)


The songs of passerine birds are enormously variable, but usually the many variations on the species-specific song can be divided into a set, or repertoire, of discrete, stereotyped songs known as song types (Hartshorne 1973; Dobson and Lemon 1975). Song types have been shown to have various functions in territory defence and mate attraction (reviews in Krebs and Kroodsma 1980; Catchpole 1982; Searcy and Andersson 1988). If song types are to serve any function, birds must be able to tell them apart; in fact this may be the main reason why song types are so different from one another (Kroodsma 1982). However, only recently have researchers used playbacks to ask how different songs have to be for birds to treat them as different types (Horn and Falls 1988a; Falls et al. 1988; Weary et al. 1990). At first glance, one might think that such perceptual questions are best answered in the laboratory. However, this is a question as much about how birds evaluate and respond to differences between songs as about whether they are capable of sensing the differences. Birds might treat the same structural contrast between songs as negligible in one situation and crucial in another. Provided enough is known about natural singing behaviour, this possibility can be tested through playback experiments that mimic these different situations.


Song Type Response Strength Playback Experiment Song Repertoire Singing Behavior 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Catchpole, C.K. 1982. The evolution of bird sounds in relation to mating and spacing behaviour. In: Evolution and Ecology of Acoustic Communication in Birds. Vol.!. (Ed. by D.E. Kroodsma, E.H. Miller and H. Ouellet ), pp. 297–319. Academic Press, New York.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Cosens, S.E. and Falls, J.B. 1984. Structure and use of song in the yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus). Z. Tierpsychol., 66, 227–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Craig, J.L. and Jenkins, P.F. 1982. The evolution of complexity in broadcast song of passerines. J. Theor. Biol., 95, 415–422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. d’Agincourt, L.G. and Falls, J.B. 1983. Variation of repertoire use in the eastern meadowlark, Sturnella magna. Can. J. Zool., 61, 1086–1093.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Derrickson, K.C. 1987. Behavioral correlates of song types of the northern mockingbird (Mims polyglottos). Ethology, 74, 21–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Derrickson, K.C. 1988. Variation in repertoire presentation in northern mockingbirds. Condor, 90, 592–606.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dobson, D.W. and Lemon, R.E. 1975. Re-examination of monotony threshold hypothesis in bird song. Nature, 257, 126–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dooling, R.J. 1989. Perception of complex, species-specific vocalizations by birds and humans. In: The comparative psychology of audition: perceiving complex sounds. (Ed. by R.J. Dooling and S.H. Hulse ), pp. 423–444. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Hillsdale, N.J.Google Scholar
  9. Falls, J.B. 1985. Song matching in western meadowlarks. Can. J. Zool., 63, 2520–2524.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Falls, J.B. and L.G. d’Agincourt. 1982. Why do meadowlarks switch song types? Can. J. Zool., 59, 2380–2385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Falls, J.B., A.G. Horn and Dickinson, T.E. 1988. How western meadowlarks classify their songs: evidence from song matching. Anim. Behay., 36, 579–585.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Falls, J.B., Dickinson, T.E and Krebs, J.R. 1990. Contrast between successive songs affects the response of eastern meadowlarks to playback. Anim. Behay., 39, 717–728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Falls, J.B., Krebs, J.R. and McGregor, P.K.. 1982. Song matching in the great tit (Parus major): the effect of similarity and familiarity. Anim. Behay., 30, 977–1009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gaddis, P.K. 1983. Differential usage of song types by plain, bridled, and tufted titmice. Ornis Scand., 14, 16–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hamad, S. 1987. Categorical perception and representation. In:Categorical Perception. (Ed. by S. Hamad), pp. 535–565. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  16. Hartshorne, C. 1973. Born to Sing. Indiana Univ. Press, Bloomington, USA.Google Scholar
  17. Horn, A.G. and Falls, J.B. 1986. Western meadowlarks switch song types when matched by playback. Anim. Behay., 34, 927–929.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Horn, A.G. and Falls, J.B. 1988a. Responses of western meadowlarks, Sturnella neglecta, to song repetition and contrast. Anim. Behay., 36, 291–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Horn, A.G. and Falls, J.B. 1988b. Structure of western meadowlark song repertoires. Can. J. Zool., 66, 284–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Horn, A.G. and Falls, J.B. 1991. Song switching in mate attraction and territory defense by western meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta). Ethology, 87, 262–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Horn, A.G., Leonard, M.L., Ratcliffe, L., Shackleton, S. and Weisman, R. Submitted. Frequency variation in the songs of black-capped chickadees (Parus atricapillus).Google Scholar
  22. Kramer, H.G., Lemon, R.E. and Morris. M.J. 1985. Song switching and agonistic stimulation in the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia): five tests. Anim. Behay., 33, 135–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Krebs, J.R. 1976. Habituation and song repertoires in the great tit. Behay. Ecol. Sociobiol., 1, 215–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Krebs, J.R. and Dawkins, R. 1984. Animal signals: mind-reading and manipulation:Behavioural Ecology: an Evolutionary Approach. (Ed. by J.R. Krebs and N.B. Davies), pp. 380–402. Sinauer Press, Sunderland, USA.Google Scholar
  25. Krebs, J.R. and Kroodsma, D.E. 1980. Repertoires and geographical variation in bird song. Adv. Stud. Behay., 11, 143–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Krebs, J.R., Ashcroft, R. and van Orsdol, K. 1981. Song matching in the great tit (Parus major L.). Anim. Behay., 29, 918–923.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kroodsma, D.E. 1977. Correlates of song organization among North American wrens. Am. Nat., 111, 995–1008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kroodsma, D.E. 1982. Song repertoires: problems in their definition and use. In: Evolution and Ecology of Acoustic Communication in Birds. 1bl.11. (Ed. by D.E. Kroodsma, E.H. Miller and H. Ouellet ), pp. 125–146. Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  29. Kroodsma, D.E. 1990. Using appropriate experimental designs for intended hypotheses in “song” playbacks, with examples for testing effects of song repertoire sizes. Anim. Behay., 40, 1138–1150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kroodsma, D.E. and Verner, J. 1978. Complex singing behaviors among Cistothorus wrens. Auk, 98, 703–716.Google Scholar
  31. MacNally, R.C. and Lemon, R.E. 1985. Repeat and serial singing modes in American restarts (Setophaga ruticilla): a test of functional hypotheses. Z. Tierpsychol., 69, 191–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. McArthur, P.D. 1986. Similarity of playback songs to self song as a determinant of response strength in song sparrows (Melospiza melodia). Anim. Behay., 34, 199–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. McGregor, P.K. 1986. Song types in the corn bunting Emberiza calandra: matching and discrimination. J. Orn., 127, 37–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McGregor, P.K. and Avery, M.I. 1986. The unsung songs of great tits (Parus major): learning neighbours’ songs for discrimination. Behay. Ecol. Sociobiol., 18, 311–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. McGregor, P.K. and Falls, J.B. 1984. The response of western meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta) to the playback of undegraded and degraded songs. Can. J. Zool., 62, 2125–2128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. McGregor, P.K. and Krebs, J.R. 1982. Song types in a population of great tits (Parus major): their distribution, abundance, and acquisition by individuals. Behaviour, 79, 126–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. McGregor, P.K., Krebs, J.R. and Ratcliffe, L.M. 1983. The reaction of great tits (Parus major) to the playback of degraded and undegraded songs: the effects of familiarity with the stimulus song types. Auk, 100, 898–906.Google Scholar
  38. Medin, D.L. and Barsalou, L.W. 1987. Categorization processes and categorical perception. In:Categorical Perception. (Ed. by S. Hamad), pp. 455–490. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK.Google Scholar
  39. Nelson, D.A. and Croner, L.J. 1991. Song categories and their functions in the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla). Auk, 108, 42–52.Google Scholar
  40. Payne, R.B. 1979. Song structure, behaviour, and sequence of song types in a population of Village Indigobirds, Vidua chalybeata. Anim. Behay., 21, 762–771.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Ritchison, G. 1988. Song repertoires and the singing behavior of male northern cardinals. Wilson Bull., 100, 583–603.Google Scholar
  42. Schroeder, D.J. and Wiley, R.H. 1983a. Communication with repertoires of song themes in tufted titmice. Anim. Behay., 31, 1128–1138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Schroeder, D.J. and Wiley, R.H. 1983b. Communication with shared song themes in tufted titmice. Auk 100, 414–424.Google Scholar
  44. Searcy, W.A. 1983. Responses to multiple song types in male song sparrows and field sparrows. Anim. Behay., 31, 948–949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Searcy, W.A. and Andersson, M. 1986. Sexual selection and the evolution of song. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst., 17, 507–533.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Simpson, B.S. 1984. Tests of habituation to song repertoires by Carolina wrens. Auk, 101, 244–254.Google Scholar
  47. Slater, P.J.B., Ince, S.A. and Colgan, P.W. 1981. Chaffinch song types: their frequencies in the population and distribution between repertoires of different individuals. Behaviour, 75, 207–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Smith, W.J. 1970. Song-like displays in the genus Sayornis. Behaviour, 37, 64–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Smith, W.J. 1977. The Behavior of Communicating. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, USA.Google Scholar
  50. Smith, W.J. 1986. Signalling behavior: contributions of different repertoires. In: Dolphin Cognition and Behavior: a Comparative Approach. (Ed. by R.J. Shusterman, J.A. Thomas and F.G. Wood ), pp. 315–330. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Hillsdale, NJ.Google Scholar
  51. Smith, W.J. 1988. Patterned daytime singing of the eastern wood-pewee, Contopus virens. Anim. Behay., 36, 1111–1123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Smith, W.J., Pawlukiewicz, J. and Smith, S.T. 1978. Kinds of activity correlated with singing patterns of the yellow-throated vireo. Anim. Behay., 26, 862–864.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Spector, D. in press. Wood warbler song systems: a review of paruline singing behaviors. Curr. Orn. Stoddard, P.K., Beecher, M.D. and Willis, M.S. Response of territorial male song sparrows to song types and variations. Behay. Ecol. Sociobiol.,22 125–130.Google Scholar
  54. Todt, D. 1975. Short-term inhibition of outputs occurring in the vocal behavior of blackbirds (Turdus merula). J. Comp. Physiol., 98, 289–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Trainer, J.M. 1987. Behavioral associations of song types during aggressive interactions among male yellow-rumped caciques (Cacicus cela). Condor, 89, 141–168.Google Scholar
  56. Trainer, J.M. 1988. Singing organization during aggressive interactions among male yellow-rumped caciques. Condor, 90, 681–688.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Weary, D.M., Falls, J.B. and McGregor, P.K. 1990. Song matching and the perception of song types in great tits, Parus major. Behay. Ecol., 1, 43–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Whitney, C.L. 1991. Avoidance of song matching in the wood thrush: a field experiment. Wilson Bull., 103, 96–100.Google Scholar
  59. Whitney, C.L. and Miller, J. 1983. Song matching in the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina): a function of song dissimilarity. Anim. Behay., 31, 457–461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Wiley, R.H. and Richards, D.G. 1982. Adaptations for acoustic communication in birds: sound transmission and signal detection. In: Evolution and Ecology of Acoustic Communication in Birds. Vol.1. (Ed. by D.E. Kroodsma, E.H. Miller & H. Ouellet ), pp. 131–181. Academic Press, New York.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wolffgramm, J. and Todt, D. 1982. Pattern and time specificity in vocal responses of blackbirds, Turdus merula L. Behaviour, 65, 264–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew G. Horn
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of Life Sciences, Scarborough CampusUniversity of TorontoScarboroughCanada

Personalised recommendations