Duty cycle, not signal structure, explains conspecific and heterospecific responses to the calls of Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus)

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Behavioral Ecology





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Animals can encode information into signals using at least 2 basic mechanisms. First, signalers can repeat their signals, encoding information into sequence-level parameters, such as signaling rate. Second, signalers can encode information into the fine structural variation of individual signals. This mechanism requires sophisticated encoding and decoding but potentially affords more rapid or efficient information transfer. The chick-a-dee call of Parid birds is a structurally complex signal that conveys food-and predator-related information to both conspecific and heterospecific receivers. However, the basic mechanism by which it communicates information is unclear. Previous research suggests that variation in the number of terminal notes is important, but this structural trait has not been manipulated independently from other structural traits or from sequence-level parameters, such as total duty cycle. We independently manipulated the fine structure and duty cycle of the calls of Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and then broadcast them to potential receivers. Both conspecific and heterospecific receivers ignored manipulations to the fine structure of individual calls when the duty cycle of the signaling sequences was held constant. In marked contrast, receivers exhibited significantly stronger responses when the duty cycle was experimentally increased, and the fine structure of individual calls was held constant. Specifically, signaling sequences with a high duty cycle attracted more conspecific and heterospecific receivers and caused those receivers to approach the speaker more quickly, to approach the speaker more closely, and to remain within 10 m of the speaker for longer. These findings show that receivers respond to a simple sequence-level trait in a structurally complex avian signal. © 2011 The Author.