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Information contained within a simple acoustic signal: The fee-bee song of the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) Open Access


Other title
operant conditioning
vocal communication
female song
acoustic discrimination
black-capped chickadee
geographic variation
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Hahn, Allison H
Supervisor and department
Sturdy, Christopher (Psychology)
Examining committee member and department
Singhal, Anthony (Psychology)
Soma, Kiran (Psychology)
Paszkowski, Cynthia (Biological Sciences)
Spetch, Marcia (Psychology)
Hurd, Peter (Psychology)
Department of Psychology

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are a common North American songbird that produce numerous types of vocalizations with various functions. The vocal repertoire of black-capped chickadees have been the focus of numerous vocal production and perception studies. Black-capped chickadees make an excellent model for studying acoustic communication because their vocal repertoire has been so well-studied. In addition to producing a learned song, parts of their chick-a-dee call are also learned. In many species of songbird, the species’ song is a long, complex vocalization, while the species’ calls are short and acoustically simple. In contrast to this, the fee-bee song of black-capped chickadees is a short and relatively simple two-note tonal vocalization, while their chick-a-dee call is a long and relatively complex vocalization. Although the acoustic structure of fee-bee songs is relatively simple, the function of male songs is similar to the function of other songbird songs: mate attraction and territory defense. In addition, male songs contain information regarding the individual producing the signal, including cues about the male’s dominance rank. In Chapter 2, I conducted a bioacoustic analysis on male songs recorded in different geographic locations. I found that the acoustic features that indicate a male’s dominance rank vary with geographic location, in addition, I found other subtle features within the song that vary with geographic location. Next, I used two operant conditioning techniques (i.e., choice preference task and a go/no-go discrimination task) to examine the perception of dominance cues in male fee-bee songs (Chapter 3). The results suggest that preference and discrimination performance varies depending on the location-of-origin of the singer, the sex of the signal receiver, and the category of songs that is rewarded during the task. I also examined the perception of geography-based acoustic cues in male fee-bee songs using a go/no-go operant discrimination task (Chapter 4). Results from this study provide evidence that male songs contain geography-related cues that are perceived by chickadees. In addition to examining acoustic cues in male songs, I also examined the production of songs by male and female chickadees. In many temperate songbirds, including black-capped chickadees, research has focused on male-produced song. However, in many temperate songbirds it is now recognized that both males and females produce song. To examine the production of songs by female black-capped chickadees, both males and females were recorded and a bioacoustic analysis was conducted on their songs (Study 4), revealing that while male and female songs have overall structural similarity (i.e., two notes), at least one acoustic feature (fee glissando) varies between the sexes. An operant conditioning task revealed that male and female songs belong to separate perceptual categories, but the biological salience of the songs affects the discrimination performance of the birds. In addition, this study revealed that acoustic features within the song’s first note (fee note) likely contain information regarding the singer’s sex (Study 5). Taken together, these studies reveal that a relatively simple vocalization, the fee-bee song, contains multiple types of information and birds can use this information when discriminating among songs; however, the biological relevance of the acoustic signal influences the discrimination performance of the birds.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
Citation for previous publication
Hahn, A.H., Guillette, L.M., Hoeschele, M., Mennill, D.J., Otter, K.A., Grava, T., Ratcliffe, L.M., & Sturdy, C.B. (2013). Dominance and geographic information contained within black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) song. Behaviour, 150, 1601-1622. doi:10.1163/1568539X-00003111Hahn, A.H., Krysler, A., & Sturdy, C.B. (2013). Female song in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus): Acoustic song features that contain individual identity information and sex differences. Behavioural Processes, 98, 98-105. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2011.03.031Hahn, A.H., Hoang, J., McMillan, N., Campbell, K., Congdon, J., & Sturdy, C.B. (2015). Biological salience influences performance and acoustic mechanisms for the discrimination of male and female songs. Animal Behaviour, 104, 213-228. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2015.03.023

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