These warblers sing for the lady next door

The study shows that even while a male common yellowthroat has a social mate, he's attuned to when nearby females are fertile and adjusts the number of songs he sings to attract them. (Credit: Kent McFarland/Flickr)

Male common yellowthroats monitor up to a quarter-mile away and change their songs to match when neighboring females are fertile, report researchers.

The male warblers riff on the same song thousands of times each day. Scientists recorded nearly 119,000 different variations of the male yellowthroat’s mating song.

“We knew that birds were paying attention to what was going on in their own territory, but to be paying attention to a whole neighborhood of complex social interactions and then responding to it is kind of surprising,” says lead author Conor Taff, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of California, Davis, department of wildlife, fisheries and conservation biology.

Listen to a common yellowthroat sing:

Taff and his colleagues used automatic recording devices strapped to trees at a field site near Saratoga Springs, New York, to record over a thousand hours of songs.

Using a spectrogram, they identified 118,472 songs sung by 26 males over two breeding seasons. Taff says one male sang 2,000 songs in one day. (Technically, the common yellowthroat sings one “song,” but with thousands of slight variations.)


Previous research has established that many songbirds, including common yellowthroats, are socially monogamous but genetically promiscuous. They have a social mate with whom they raise their young and co-defend their territory. But DNA evidence has shown that more than one male typically sires the eggs in one female’s nest.

This study goes a step further, showing that even while the males have a social mate, they are cuing in on when nearby females are fertile and adjusting the number of songs they sing to attract them.

Conversely, when their own mate is fertile, the honeymoon is over—they rarely sing at all. Instead, they closely follow behind her. Taff says this may be to ward off other males that are cuing in to the female’s fertility.

“Elaborate displays and sexual signals are pervasive features of the natural world,” says Taff. “Examining them provides a chance to look at how social interactions evolve.”

The study appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The study received funding from the Explorer’s Club, Society for the Study of Evolution, the UC Davis Animal Behavior Graduate Group, and the National Science Foundation. Taff conducted the study as a graduate student in the department of evolution and ecology.

Source: UC Davis