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Song Perch Height in Rufous-and-White Wrens: Does Behaviour Enhance Effective Communication in a Tropical Forest?


Nicole K. S. Barker, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Windsor, 401 Sunset Avenue, Windsor, ON, Canada, N9B3P4.


Animal signals are distorted as they transmit through the environment, but many species have evolved strategies to minimize distortion of vocal signals. Song structure can change over evolutionary time, or signallers can modify their behaviour, to reduce attenuation and degradation in a specific habitat. We investigated signalling behaviour in rufous-and-white wrens, Thyothorus rufalbus, a Neotropical songbird in which both sexes sing, with a specific focus on perch height. Based on previous findings, including a detailed sound transmission study, we predicted that rufous-and-white wrens would choose elevated song perches in order to maximize the distance their songs travel, and that males and females would show different perch height choices. We observed 30 birds in 18 territories in a tropical forest in Costa Rica to determine the perch heights of birds when singing, producing non-song vocalizations, collecting nesting material, foraging, and engaging in other behaviours. We found that both activity and sex influenced perch height. Birds sang from a variety of heights, but the highest perches were used as song posts by males. Males minimized singing from within 1 m of the ground, and they generally perched higher than females, which may reflect sex differences in communication strategies. Both sexes foraged on or near the ground. The finding that rufous-and-white wrens vary their perch height with specific activities suggests that they modify their singing behaviour to enhance long-distance communication.