Why birds sing at dawn: the role of consistent song transmission


*Corresponding author.
Email: handford@uwo.ca


The dawn chorus is a widely observed phenomenon. One of the common, but inadequately studied, explanations for the occurrence of the dawn chorus is based on the rationale that atmospheric turbulence, which impairs acoustic communication, is least at dawn, and thus singing at dawn in some way maximizes signal performance. To investigate what possible acoustic benefit is gained through singing at dawn, we transmitted Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana and White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis song through open grassland and closed forest both at dawn and at midday. The transmitted songs were re-recorded at four distances from 25 to 100 m. Our results show that the mean overall absolute transmission quality of the signals was not significantly better at dawn than at midday. However, the signal transmission quality was significantly more consistent at dawn than at midday. Also, in general, signal transmission quality decreased with increasing distance. Variability in the transmission quality increased with distance for the White-throated Sparrow song, but not for the Swamp Sparrow song. Consistency in signal transmission quality is a factor that, arguably, is crucial for the identity function of song. This study strongly supports the acoustic transmission hypothesis as an explanation for the existence of the dawn chorus while the demonstration of variability as a key factor in singing at dawn is novel.