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Phonology and Geographic Song Discrimination in Song Sparrows


Corresponding author: William A. Searcy, Department of Biology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33124, USA. E-mail:


We investigated whether song sparrows discriminate foreign from local songs using specific phonologic markers, a mechanism of geographic discrimination previously described for some other songbirds. Song sparrows from Linesville, Pennsylvania (PA) respond more strongly to local songs than to songs from Millbrook, New York (NY). We identify 61 note categories in PA and NY songs, of which 13 are unique to PA, 17 are unique to NY, and 31 are shared. The most common note category in PA song, ‘buzz BO5’, is present in 89% of PA songs and only in 8% of NY songs; this difference in percentage representation is the largest we found for any note category. Substituting this potential PA marker into NY songs, however, did not make those songs more salient to PA sparrows; instead, PA males tested with territorial playback responded significantly less aggressively to NY/PA hybrid songs than to NY songs. A series of control experiments showed that song sparrows do not detect substitution of PA notes into PA songs or of NY notes into NY songs. The results weigh against the hypothesis that geographic discrimination in song sparrows is accomplished simply by recognition of a small number of phonologic markers.