Is song–type matching a conventional signal of aggressive intentions?

Sandra L. Vehrencamp

Abstract

Song–type matching is a singing strategy found in some oscine songbirds with repertoires of song types and at least partial sharing of song types between males. Males reply to the song of a rival male by subsequently singing the same song type. For type matching to serve as an effective long–distance threat signal, it must be backed up by some probability of aggressive approach and impose some type of cost on senders that minimizes the temptation to bluff. Western subspecies of the song sparrow exhibit moderate levels of song–type sharing between adjacent males and sometimes type match in response to playback of song types they possess in their repertoires. Interactive playback experiments were used in order to examine the subsequent behaviour of type–matching birds and to quantify the responses of focal birds to type–matching versus non–matching stimuli. Birds that chose to type match the playback of a shared song type subsequently approached the speaker much more aggressively than birds that did not type match. Moreover, birds approached a type–matching stimulus much more aggressively than a non–matching stimulus. These results and consideration of alternatives suggest that type matching in song sparrows is a conventional signal in which honesty is maintained by a receiver retaliation cost against bluffers.