Geographic song discrimination in relation to dispersal distances in song sparrows

William A. Searcy, Stephen Nowicki, Melissa Hughes, Susan Peters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

84 Scopus citations


Whether geographic variation in signals actually affects communication between individuals depends on whether discriminable differences in signals occur over distances that individuals move in their lifetimes. We measure the ability of song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) to discriminate foreign from local songs using foreign songs recorded at a series of increasing distances and compare the results with previous measurements of dispersal distances. We test discrimination in males using playback of songs on territories and measuring approach and in females using playback to estradiol-treated captives and measuring courtship display. Females fail to discriminate against foreign songs recorded at 18 km but do discriminate against foreign songs recorded at 34, 68, 135, and 540 km. Males fail to discriminate against foreign songs recorded at 18, 34, 68, 135, and 270 km but do discriminate against foreign songs from 540 km. Females are more discriminating, but even they do not discriminate at a distance three times the root-mean-square dispersal distance, as estimated from mtDNA variation. We suggest that female preference for local songs benefits females not because it allows them to reject foreign males but because accurate production of local song serves as a test of song-learning ability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)221-230
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 2002



  • Dialects
  • Dispersal
  • Female choice
  • Geographic variation
  • Melospiza melodia
  • Song

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology

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