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What Makes Vocalisation Frequency an Unreliable Signal of Body Size in Birds? A Study on Black Swans


Gonçalo C. Cardoso, CIBIO, Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Recursos Genéticos, Campus Agrário de Vairão, 4485-661 Vairão, Portugal. E-mail:


In many animal species, the frequency (pitch) of vocalisations correlates negatively with body size and may thus signal competitive ability. However, this relationship is absent in other species. Understanding why this difference exists across species may help to explain some of the diversity of vocal communication systems. We assessed whether vocalisation frequency signals body size in black swans (Cygnus atratus), and how this is affected by (i) variation in frequency within individuals and (ii) size variation across individuals. Frequency was correlated with body size and mass, with slopes close to the allometry expected if the birds were maximising sound radiation, but the explained variation in frequency was low. Within-individual variation in vocalisation frequency was greater in male than female swans, and the reliability of frequency as a signal of size in males was correspondingly lower. A review of the literature on the relationship between the frequency of avian vocalisations and body size also showed smaller effect sizes for more variable vocalisations (birdsongs), than for simpler vocalisations. Vocalisation frequency was more reliably correlated with body size when the sexes were pooled (creating a larger range of variation in size) than when the relationship was examined for either sex separately, although male and female data followed the same allometric line. These results show that variation in frequency within individuals and low variation in size across individuals reduce the reliability of vocalisation frequency as a signal of body size, which helps to understand differences among species in the signal value of vocalisation frequency.