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Red-winged blackbirds Ageliaus phoeniceus respond differently to song types with different performance levels


  • Emily R. A. Cramer,

  • J. Jordan Price

E. R. A. Cramer (correspondence) and J. J. Price, Department of Biology, St. Mary's College of Maryland, St. Mary's City, MD 20686, USA. – Present address of ERAC: Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA. E-mail:


Physical constraints on animal signals can have important consequences for communication. For bird songs that include a trill, performance is physically constrained by a trade-off between the rate at which notes are repeated in the trill and the sound frequency range covered, such that a trill cannot exceed a certain frequency range for a given note repetition rate. Producing trills that are closer to this performance limit is presumably more challenging for birds than producing trills that are farther from it. Male red-winged blackbirds Ageliaus phoeniceus have repertoires of two to eight song types containing trills that span a range of performance levels. We determined the approximate trill performance maximum for a population of red-winged blackbirds, then conducted playback experiments to measure the responses of territorial males to song types with either high or low performance levels relative to this limit. Males responded significantly more strongly to songs containing low performance trills. Our results show that male red-winged blackbirds can discriminate between different song performance levels, suggesting that vocal proficiency plays a role in male-male interactions.