Context, Structural Variability and Distinctiveness of California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis) Vocal Duets


Lauryn Benedict, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 3101 VLSB, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.


Avian vocal duets occur when paired birds produce temporally and structurally coordinated vocalizations. Duets are given by members of many species from taxonomically distinct lineages and show great variety in form that often reflects function. By describing the structure of vocal duets we can learn about the diversity of communication signals present in nature and also gain insight into the evolution and operation of those signals. This study quantified the usage patterns and acoustic structure of California towhee duet vocalizations, and tested the distinctiveness of duets among different pairs. California towhee duets consist of a ‘squeal’ vocalization that is highly unlike the species-typical call note or male advertizement song. California towhees duet an average of three times per hour during the breeding season, and all duets are accompanied by an approach response that brings duetting partners into close spatial proximity. Males and females produce duet contributions with the same syllabic structure. Individual birds produce highly variable squeal vocalizations that are distinctive enough to signal identity. California towhee duet characteristics indicate that the squeal vocalization has evolved separately from other vocal traits in this species and was promoted by natural selection as a duet-specific vocalization. Duet usage patterns and structure suggest that these communication signals function in a cooperative context.