Black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus, can use individually distinctive songs to discriminate among conspecifics

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Animal Behaviour





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The ability to discriminate among signallers and to respond to them on an individual basis provides receivers with substantial benefits. For example, discriminating among signallers allows receivers to ignore unreliable individuals or to focus their territorial defence on unfamiliar intruders. Such discrimination requires signals to be individually distinctive; that is, signals must vary more among than within individuals. Furthermore, receivers must be able to discriminate among the signals of different individuals. In this study, we used fine structural analysis to show that the simple songs of male blackcapped chickadees are individually distinctive, but that substantial variation exists both within and among recordings of the same individual. This finding emphasizes the need for multiple recordings of each individual in studies of individual distinctiveness, since failing to measure variation across recordings of the same individual can make it difficult to determine whether signals vary among individuals or whether they simply vary among different recording sessions. To test whether chickadees discriminate among the signals of different individuals, we used a playback experiment in which we broadcast priming and discrimination stimuli to 45 territorial males. When individuals heard the playback of two different males, they produced more songs and remained near the loudspeaker for a longer period than when they heard two different exemplars from the same male. Chickadees can therefore discriminate among singers based exclusively on their songs, which may help to explain how chickadees eavesdrop on singing contests and subsequently select extrapair mates on the basis of song contest performance. © 2010 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.