Quiet violence: Savannah Sparrows respond to playback-simulated rivals using low-amplitude songs as aggressive signals

Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2018
Authors:Moran, IG, Doucet, SM, Newman, AEM, D. Norris, R, Mennill, DJ
Secondary Authors:Koenig, W
Pagination:724 - 732
Date Published:Jan-10-2018
Keywords:aggressive signalling, animal communication, low‐amplitude vocalizations, Savannah Sparrows, soft songs

When animals compete over resources such as breeding territories, they often use signals to communicate their aggressive intentions. By studying which signals are associated with aggressive interactions, we gain a deeper appreciation of animal behaviour. We studied aggressive signalling in male Savannah Sparrows, Passerculus sandwichensis, focusing on signals that precede physical attack against territorial intruders. We simulated intruders using song playback and taxidermic models, and we determined which behaviours were associated with physical attack. Previous studies that have used this approach suggest that many species produce songs of dramatically lower amplitude, or “soft songs,” as signals of aggressive intention. Savannah Sparrows, however, are not known to produce soft songs, and therefore, they provided an interesting system for testing signals that predict attack. Of 93 playback subjects, 23 males attacked the simulated intruder and 70 did not. To our surprise, Savannah Sparrows produced soft songs, and the number of soft songs was a significant predictor of attack on the simulated intruder. Birds also showed a nonsignificant tendency to produce more “chip” calls prior to attack on the simulated intruder, whereas three other measured behaviours (aggressive calls, wing waving and passes over the model) did not predict attack. Our study contributes to the growing body of research on aggressive territorial signals and reveals that soft song is an even more widespread signal of aggression in songbirds than previously recognized.

Short Title:Ethology
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Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith