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Title: Interspecific song imitation by a Prairie Warbler

Author: Byers, Bruce E.; Kramer, Brodie A.; Akresh, Michael E.; King, David I.;

Date: 2013

Source: Journal of Field Ornithology. 84(2): 181-186.

Publication Series: Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Description: Song development in oscine songbirds relies on imitation of adult singers and thus leaves developing birds vulnerable to potentially costly errors caused by imitation of inappropriate models, such as the songs of other species. In May and June 2012, we recorded the songs of a bird that made such an error: a male Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor) in western Massachusetts that sang songs seemingly acquired by imitating the songs of a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla). Another song type in the bird's repertoire was a near-normal Group A Prairie Warbler song, but the bird used this song in contexts normally reserved for Group B songs. Despite its abnormal singing behavior, the aberrant bird successfully defended a territory and attracted a mate that laid two clutches of eggs. Results of playbacks of the focal bird's heterospecific song suggested that neighboring conspecific males learned to associate the Field Sparrow-like song with the focal male, and responded to the song as if it were a Prairie Warbler song. Our evidence suggests that the focal bird's aberrant singing evoked normal responses from potential mates and rivals. If such responses are widespread among songbirds, the general failure of heterospecific songs, once acquired, to spread through populations by cultural transmission is probably not attributable to a lack of recognition by conspecifics of the songs of heterospecific singers.

Keywords: birdsong, Field Sparrow, Setophaga discolor, Spizella pusilla, vocal learning

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Byers, Bruce E.; Kramer, Brodie A.; Akresh, Michael E.; King, David I. 2013. Interspecific song imitation by a Prairie Warbler. Journal of Field Ornithology. 84(2): 181-186.


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