Call Variation in Tufted Titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) in a Distress Context: Potential Sex Differences



Todd M. Freeberg, Department of Psychology and Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Austin Peay Building 301B, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA.



Tufted titmice, Baeolophus bicolor, produce calls in the contexts related to threat and approach of, and capture by, a predator. In titmice, these calls transition from the chick-a-dee call, used in a wide range of social contexts, to ‘distress’ calls that are produced by birds when captured and held by a predator or human observer. A recent study indicated that titmice modify the note composition of their calls in the presence of such threatening stimuli. Here, we tested whether female and male titmice differed in their calling behavior, as relatively few sex differences have been documented in calls shared by female and male songbirds. Individual titmice were captured in walk-in treadle traps, and we gradually increased the level of fear or arousal by approaching and finally capturing the bird in the hand. Male titmice produced more chick-a-dee calls than females as the level of threat increased, up to the point of capturing the bird in the hand. Furthermore, the note composition of calls produced by males differed from that of calls produced by females. A limitation to our study is that our method did not allow us to rule out the possibility that size or dominance differences, rather than sex, were the main reason for the differences in calling we detected. However, increased size generally was not associated with increased calling. We discuss some possible explanations for variation in distress calling behavior in titmice.