Quality of song learning affects female response to male bird song

Stephen Nowicki, William A. Searcy, Susan Peters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Bird song is unusual as a sexually selected trait because its expression depends on learning as well as genetic and other environmental factors. Prior work has demonstrated that males who are deprived of the opportunity to learn produce songs that function little if at all in male-female interactions. We asked whether more subtle variation in male song-learning abilities influences female response to song. Using a copulation solicitation assay, we measured the response of female song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) to songs of laboratory-reared males that differed in the amount of learned versus invented material that they included and in the degree to which learned material accurately matched the model from which it was copied. Females responded significantly more to songs that had been learned better, by either measure. Females did not discriminate between the best-learned songs of laboratory-reared males and songs of wild males used as models during learning. These results provide, to our knowledge, a first experimental demonstration that variation in learning abilities among males plays a functionally important part in the expression of a sexually selected trait, and further provide support for the hypothesis that song functions as an indicator of male quality because it reflects variation in response to early developmental stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1949-1954
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1503
StatePublished - Sep 22 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Bird song
  • Female choice
  • Indicator mechanism
  • Melospiza melodia
  • Sexual selection
  • Song learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)


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