Cookies Policy

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

I accept this policy

Find out more here

Male cowbirds vary the attractiveness of courtship songs with changes in the social context

No metrics data to plot.
The attempt to load metrics for this article has failed.
The attempt to plot a graph for these metrics has failed.
The full text of this article is not currently available.

Brill’s MyBook program is exclusively available on BrillOnline Books and Journals. Students and scholars affiliated with an institution that has purchased a Brill E-Book on the BrillOnline platform automatically have access to the MyBook option for the title(s) acquired by the Library. Brill MyBook is a print-on-demand paperback copy which is sold at a favorably uniform low price.

Access this article

+ Tax (if applicable)
Add to Favorites
You must be logged in to use this functionality

image of Behaviour

Courtship-signalling theory often incorporates the assumption that males must consistently produce the highest-intensity displays they can achieve, thereby indicating their underlying quality to females. Contest-signalling theory, in contrast, assumes that flexible signal performance is routine. The two frameworks thereby suggest conflicting predictions about male flexibility when the same signal operates in both intrasexual and intersexual communication. Sexual competition often occurs within complex social environments where male displays can be received by potential mates, rivals, or both at once. In brown-headed cowbirds’ breeding flocks, for example, multiple males sometimes vie directly for a single female’s attention; at other times males have opportunities to sing to females without interference. We tested whether cowbirds vary the intensity of their signalling across contexts like these. We recorded songs from males courting females both with and without a male competitor in sight. We then played those recordings to solitary, naïve females in sound attenuation chambers, and also to a naïve aviary-housed flock. The songs males had produced when they could see their competitors were more attractive, eliciting more copulatory postures from naïve females and more approaches from birds in the flock. Results suggest high-intensity displays function within a larger, flexible signalling strategy in this species, and the varying audience composition that accompanies social complexity may demand flexible signalling even in classic display behaviours such as birdsong.

Affiliations: 1: aDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 106A Guyot Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544-2016, USA ; 2: bDepartment of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University, 75 University Avenue West, Waterloo, ON, Canada N2L 3C5

*Corresponding author’s e-mail address:

Full text loading...


Data & Media loading...

1. Akçay Ç., Tom M.E., Campbell S.E., Beecher M.D. (2013). "Song type matching is an honest early threat signal in a hierarchical animal communication system". — Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B: Biol. Sci. Vol 280: 20122517. [Crossref]
2. Allan S.E., Suthers R.A. (1994). "Lateralization and motor stereotype of song production in the brown-headed cowbird". — J. Neurobiol. Vol 25: 1154-1166. [Crossref]
3. Ballentine B., Hyman J., Nowicki S. (2004). "Vocal performance influences female response to male bird song: an experimental test". — Behav. Ecol. Vol 15: 163-168. [Crossref]
4. Baptista L.F., Petrinovich L. (1986). "Song development in the white-crowned sparrow: social factors and sex differences". — Anim. Behav. Vol 34: 1359-1371. [Crossref]
5. Bartsch C., Wenchel R., Kaiser A., Kipper S. (2014). "Singing onstage: female and male common nightingales eavesdrop on song type matching". — Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. Vol 68: 1163-1171. [Crossref]
6. Beecher M.D., Stoddard P.K., Campbell S.E., Horning C.L. (1996). "Repertoire matching between neighbouring song sparrows". — Anim. Behav. Vol 51: 917-923. [Crossref]
7. Benedict L., Rose A., Warning N. (2012). "Canyon wrens alter their songs in response to territorial challenges". — Anim. Behav. Vol 84: 1463-1467. [Crossref]
8. Bermudez-Cuamatzin E., Rios-Chelen A.A., Gil D., Garcia C.M. (2011). "Experimental evidence for real-time song frequency shift in response to urban noise in a passerine bird". — Biol. Lett. Vol 7: 36-38. [Crossref]
9. Botero C.A., Rossman R.J., Caro L.M., Stenzler L.M., Lovette I.J., de Kort S.R., Vehrencamp S.L. (2009). "Syllable type consistency is related to age, social status and reproductive success in the tropical mockingbird". — Anim. Behav. Vol 77: 701-706. [Crossref]
10. Brainard M.S., Doupe A.J. (2002). "What songbirds teach us about learning". — Nature Vol 417: 351-358. [Crossref]
11. Brenowitz E.A., Beecher M.D. (2005). "Song learning in birds: diversity and plasticity, opportunities and challenges". — Trends Neurosci. Vol 28: 127-132. [Crossref]
12. Brumm H., Ritschard M. (2011). "Song amplitude affects territorial aggression of male receivers in chaffinches". — Behav. Ecol. Vol 22: 310-316. [Crossref]
13. Byers J., Hebets E., Podos J. (2010). "Female mate choice based upon male motor performance". — Anim. Behav. Vol 79: 771-778. [Crossref]
14. Byrne R.W., Whiten A. (1988). Machiavellian intelligence: social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes, and humans. — Clarendon Press, Oxford.
15. Chance M.R., Mead A.P. (1953). "Social behaviour and primate evolution". — Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. Vol 7: 395-439.
16. Charif R.A., Strickman L.M., Waack A.M. (2010). Raven pro 1.4 user’s manual. — The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY.
17. Cotton S., Fowler K., Pomiankowski A. (2004). "Condition dependence of sexual ornament size and variation in the stalk-eyed fly Cyrtodiopsis dalmanni (Diptera: Diopsidae)". — Evolution Vol 58: 1038-1046. [Crossref]
18. Crockford C., Wittig R.M., Mundry R., Zuberbühler K. (2012). "Wild chimpanzees inform ignorant group members of danger". — Curr. Biol. Vol 22: 142-146. [Crossref]
19. Crockford C., Wittig R.M., Seyfarth R.M., Cheney D.L. (2007). "Baboons eavesdrop to deduce mating opportunities". — Anim. Behav. Vol 73: 885-890. [Crossref]
20. Darley J.A. (1978). "Pairing in captive brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)". — Can. J. Zool. Vol 56: 2249-2252. [Crossref]
21. Darley J.A. (1983). "Territorial behavior of the female brown-headed cow bird (Molothrus ater)". — Can. J. Zool. Vol 61: 65-69. [Crossref]
22. Davies N.B. (2010). Cuckoos, cowbirds and other cheats. — A&C Black, London.
23. Dawkins M.S., Guilford T. (1991). "The corruption of honest signalling". — Anim. Behav. Vol 41: 865-873. [Crossref]
24. Dawkins R. (1980). "Good strategy or evolutionarily stable strategy". — In: Sociobiology: beyond nature/nurture ( Barlow G.W., Silverberg J., eds). Westview, Boulder, CO, p.  331-367.
25. Drăgănoiu T.I., Nagle L., Kreutzer M. (2002). "Directional female preference for an exaggerated male trait in canary (Serinus canaria) song". — Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B: Biol. Sci. Vol 269: 2525-2531. [Crossref]
26. DuBois A.L., Nowicki S., Searcy W.A. (2009). "Swamp sparrows modulate vocal performance in an aggressive context". — Biol. Lett. Vol 5: 163-165. [Crossref]
27. Dufty A.M. (1986). "Singing and the establishment and maintenance of dominance hierarchies in captive brown-headed cowbirds". — Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. Vol 19: 49-55. [Crossref]
28. Friedmann H. (1929). The cowbirds: a study in the biology of social parasitism. — CC Thomas, Springfield, IL.
29. Gersick A.S., Snyder-Mackler N., White D.J. (2012). "Ontogeny of social skills: social complexity improves mating and competitive strategies in male brown-headed cowbirds". — Anim. Behav. Vol 83: 1171-1177. [Crossref]
30. Grafen A. (1990). "Biological signals as handicaps". — J. Theor. Biol. Vol 144: 517-546. [Crossref]
31. Gros-Louis J. (2004). "The function of food-associated calls in white-faced capuchin monkeys, Cebus capucinus, from the perspective of the signaller". — Anim. Behav. Vol 67: 431-440. [Crossref]
32. Heinig A., Pant S., Dunning J.L., Bass A., Coburn Z., Prather J.F. (2014). "Male mate preferences in mutual mate choice: finches modulate their songs across and within male–female interactions". — Anim. Behav. Vol 97: 1-12. [Crossref]
33. King A.P., West M.J. (1977). "Species identification in the North American cowbird: appropriate responses to abnormal song". — Science Vol 195: 1002-1004. [Crossref]
34. King A.P., West M.J., Eastzer D.H. (1986). "Female cowbird song perception: evidence for different developmental programs within the same subspecies". — Ethology Vol 72: 89-98. [Crossref]
35. King A.P., West M.J., Eastzer D.H., Staddon J.E.R. (1981). "An experimental investigation of the bioacoustics of cowbird song". — Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. Vol 9: 211-217. [Crossref]
36. King A.P., West M.J., White D.J. (2003a). "Female cowbird song perception: evidence for plasticity of preference". — Ethology Vol 109: 865-877. [Crossref]
37. King A.P., White D.J., West M.J. (2003b). "Female proximity stimulates development of male competition in juvenile brown-headed cowbirds, Molothrus ater". — Anim. Behav. Vol 66: 817-828. [Crossref]
38. Laskey A.R. (1950). "Cowbird behavior". — Wilson Bull Vol 62: 157-174.
39. LaZerte S.E., Slabbekoorn H., Otter K.A. (2016). "Learning to cope: vocal adjustment to urban noise is correlated with prior experience in black-capped chickadees". — Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B: Biol. Sci. Vol 283: 20161058. [Crossref]
40. Marler P. (1970). "A comparative approach to vocal learning: song development in white-crowned sparrows". — J. Comp. Physiol. Psychol. Vol 71: 1. [Crossref]
41. Marler P., Peters S. (1982). "Developmental overproduction and selective attrition: new processes in the epigenesis of birdsong". — Dev. Psychobiol. Vol 15: 369-378. [Crossref]
42. Mooney R. (2009). "Neurobiology of song learning". — Curr. Opin. Neurobiol. Vol 19: 654-660. [Crossref]
43. Nelson D.A., Marler P. (1994). "Selection-based learning in bird song development". — Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA Vol 91: 10498-10501. [Crossref]
44. Nordby J.C., Campbell S.E., Beecher M.D. (2007). "Selective attrition and individual song repertoire development in song sparrows". — Anim. Behav. Vol 74: 1413-1418. [Crossref]
45. Nowicki S., Peters S., Podos J. (1998). "Song learning, early nutrition and sexual selection in songbirds". — Am. Zool. Vol 38: 179. [Crossref]
46. Nowicki S., Searcy W., Peters S. (2002). "Brain development, song learning and mate choice in birds: a review and experimental test of the “nutritional stress hypothesis.”" — J. Comp. Physiol. A Vol 188: 1003-1014. [Crossref]
47. Oliveira R.F., Taborsky M., Brockmann H.J. (2008). Alternative reproductive tactics: an integrative approach. — Cambridge Univ. Press. [Crossref]
48. O’Loghlen A.L., Rothstein S.I. (2010). "Multimodal signalling in a songbird: male audiovisual displays vary significantly by social context in brown-headed cowbirds". — Anim. Behav. Vol 79: 1285-1292. [Crossref]
49. O’Loghlen A.L., Rothstein S.I. (2012). "When less is best: female brown-headed cowbirds prefer less intense male displays". — PLoS ONE Vol 7: e36130.
50. Patricelli G.L., Coleman S.W., Borgia G. (2006). "Male satin bowerbirds, Ptilonorhynchus violaceus, adjust their display intensity in response to female startling: an experiment with robotic females". — Anim. Behav. Vol 71: 49-59. [Crossref]
51. Peters S., Nowicki S. (2017). "Overproduction and attrition: the fates of songs memorized during song learning in songbirds". — Anim. Behav. Vol 124: 255-261. [Crossref]
52. Podos J. (2017). "Birdsong performance studies: reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated". — Anim. Behav. Vol 125: e17-e24. [Crossref]
53. Price J.J., Earnshaw S.M., Webster M.S. (2006). "Montezuma oropendolas modify a component of song constrained by body size during vocal contests". — Anim. Behav. Vol 71: 799-807. [Crossref]
54. R Development Core Team (2010). R: a language and environment or statistical computing. — R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna.
55. Ritschard M., van Oers K., Naguib M., Brumm H. (2012). "Song amplitude of rival males modulates the territorial behaviour of great tits during the fertile period of their mates". — Ethology Vol 118: 197-202. [Crossref]
56. Ritschard M., Riebel K., Brumm H. (2010). "Female zebra finches prefer high amplitude song". — Anim. Behav. Vol 79: 877-883. [Crossref]
57. Ronald K.L., Skillman T., Lin A., Li Q., Fernandez-Juricic E., Lucas J.R. (2015). "Watch your tone: social conditions modulate singing strategies". — Ethology Vol 121: 1104-1115. [Crossref]
58. Rothstein S.I., Yokel D.A., Fleischer R.C. (1986). "Social dominance, mating and spacing systems, female fecundity, and vocal dialects in captive and free-ranging brown-headed cowbirds". — Curr. Ornithol. Vol 3: 127-185.
59. Searcy W.A., Beecher M.D. (2009). "Song as an aggressive signal in songbirds". — Anim. Behav. Vol 78: 1281-1292. [Crossref]
60. Searcy W.A., Nowicki S. (2005). The evolution of animal communication. — Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
61. Setchell J.M. (2008). "Alternative reproductive tactics in primates". — In: Alternative reproductive tactics: an integrative approach ( Oliveira R.F., Taborsky M., Brockmann H.J., eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.  373-398. [Crossref]
62. Seyfarth R.M., Cheney D.L. (2010). "Production, usage, and comprehension in animal vocalizations". — Brain Lang. Vol 115: 92-100. [Crossref]
63. Slocombe K.E., Zuberbühler K. (2007). "Chimpanzees modify recruitment screams as a function of audience composition". — Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA Vol 104: 17228-17233. [Crossref]
64. Snyder-Mackler N., White D.J. (2011). "The developmental ecology of acoustic sensitivities: reactions to song playbacks by male cowbirds change across their first year of life". — Behaviour Vol 148: 747-764. [Crossref]
65. Sullivan-Beckers L., Hebets E.A. (2014). "Tactical adjustment of signalling leads to increased mating success and survival". — Anim. Behav. Vol 93: 111-117. [Crossref]
66. Tumer E.C., Brainard M.S. (2007). "Performance variability enables adaptive plasticity of “crystallized” adult birdsong". — Nature Vol 450: 1240-1244. [Crossref]
67. West M.J., King A.P. (1980). "Enriching cowbird song by social deprivation". — J. Comp. Physiol. Psychol. Vol 94: 263-270. [Crossref]
68. West M.J., King A.P. (1986). "Song repertoire development in male cowbirds (Molothrus ater): its relation to female assessment of song potency". — J. Comp. Psychol. Vol 100: 296. [Crossref]
69. West M.J., King A.P. (1988). "Vocalizations of juvenile cowbirds (Molothrus ater ater) evoke copulatory responses from females". — Dev. Psychobiol. Vol 21: 543-552. [Crossref]
70. White D.J., King A.P., West M.J., Gros-Louis J., Tuttle E.M. (2010). "Effects of singing on copulation success and egg production in brown-headed cowbirds, Molothrus ater". — Behav. Ecol. Vol 21: 211-218. [Crossref]
71. Whiten A. (1997). Machiavellian intelligence II: extensions and evaluations. — Cambridge Univ. Press. [Crossref]
72. Wingfield J.C. (2012). "The challenge hypothesis: behavioral ecology to neurogenomics". — J. Ornithol. Vol 153: 85-96. [Crossref]
73. Woolley S.C., Doupe A.J. (2008). "Social context-induced song variation affects female behavior and gene expression". — PLoS Biol. Vol 6: e62. [Crossref]

Article metrics loading...



Can't access your account?
  • Tools

  • Add to Favorites
  • Printable version
  • Email this page
  • Subscribe to ToC alert
  • Get permissions
  • Recommend to your library

    You must fill out fields marked with: *

    Librarian details
    Your details
    Why are you recommending this title?
    Select reason:
    Behaviour — Recommend this title to your library
  • Export citations
  • Key

  • Full access
  • Open Access
  • Partial/No accessInformation