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Alerting and Message Components in Songs of Rufous-Sided Towhees

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In numerous species of passerine birds the initial few notes of the song have a narrow frequency range and wide temporal spacing when compared with the rest of the song. This structure is well adapted for high detectability when the song is acoustically degraded during passage through the environment. The song of the rufous-sided towhee (Pipilo eythrophtalmus) consists of relatively tonal introductory syllables followed by a complex rapid trill. The trill is capable of carrying more information than the introduction, but is inherently less detectable at a distance owing to degradation by reverberation, amplitude fluctuation, and frequency-dependent attenuation. Signal detection theory predicts that the detectability of the trill will be increased when it is preceded by the introductory syllables, owing to the removal of uncertainty concerning the time of arrival of the signal. This is alerted detection. I performed field experiments using playback of recorded song to towhees to test the hypothesis that these introductory syllables facilitate detection of conspecific song at a distance. Tape recordings of normal and artificially degraded full songs, introduction, and trills were played to territorial male towhees. Normal songs, degraded songs, and normal trills elicited strong territorial defense responses, indicating recognition as adequate species-specific song, and confirming that sufficient information is contained in the trill for species recognition. Degraded trills alone elicited little response. Both normal and degraded introductions also elicited little response, demonstrating that the increased response to a degraded full song over that to a degraded trill is not due to any species-specific characteristics of the introduction, but rather to its function as an alerting stimulus.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Zoology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N. C., U.S.A.


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