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Loudness of syllables is related to syntax and phonology in the songs of canaries and seedeaters

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Birdsongs often comprise a variety of different syllables, and some studies compared sound amplitude among syllables to infer which traits may be more demanding to sing loudly. We measured sound amplitude of syllables within songs of 24 species of Serinus, and found that in 19 species some traits were consistently sung less loudly. This suggests that it is not uncommon that some syllable traits are more demanding than others to sing loudly. Which syllable traits were sung softer varied to a certain extent among species, but some were consistent across the genus: brief syllables and composite syllables (syllables with several elements) were sung less loudly in many species. Across species, the more elements composite syllables had, the stronger its negative effect on loudness, suggesting repeated evolution of a costly trait. We also found that song syntax was related to aspects of vocal output. Repeated syntax was related to high sound amplitude, and non-repeated syntax to high sound to silence ratio. Therefore, syntax may be subject to indirect selection via its relation with these aspects of vocal output. These results suggest that the evolution of song phonology and syntax is influenced by how loudly different species need to sing.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC 3010, Australia; 2: Departamento de Antropologia, Universidade de Coimbra, 3000-056 Coimbra, Portugal

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