Black-capped chickadees Poecile atricapillus sing at higher pitches with elevated anthropogenic noise, but not with decreasing canopy cover


D. S. Proppe, Dept of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2E9, Canada. E-mail:


Several songbird species sing at higher frequencies (i.e. higher pitch) when anthropogenic noise levels are elevated. Such frequency shifting is thought to be an adaptation to prevent masking of bird song by anthropogenic noise. However, no study of this phenomenon has examined how vegetative differences between noisy and quiet sites influence frequency shifting. Variation in vegetative structure is important because the acoustic adaptation hypothesis predicts that birds in more open areas should also sing at higher frequencies. Thus, vegetative structure may partially explain the observation of higher frequency songs in areas with high levels of anthropogenic noise. To distinguish between frequency shifting due to noise or vegetative structure we recorded the songs of black-capped chickadees Poecile atricapillus vocalizing in high and low noise sites with open and closed canopy forests. Consistent with the noise-dependent frequency hypothesis, black-capped chickadees sang at higher frequencies in high noise sites than in low noise sites. In contrast, birds did not sing at higher frequencies in sites with more open canopies. These results suggest that frequency shifting in chickadees is more strongly related to ambient noise levels than to vegetative structure. A second frequency measure, inter-note ratio, was reduced at higher levels of canopy cover. We speculate that this may be due to a non-random distribution of dominant males. In sum, our results support the hypothesis that some birds sing at higher frequencies to avoid overlap with anthropogenic noise, but suggest that vegetative structure may play a role in the modification of other song traits.