Soft song in song sparrows: Acoustic structure and implications for signal function

Rindy C. Anderson, William A. Searcy, Susan Peters, Stephen Nowicki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


In many species of songbirds, males sometimes produce songs at distinctly lower amplitude than in normal singing. Depending on the species, these 'soft songs' may be sung in the context of female courtship, male-male aggression, or both. In song sparrows, males produce soft songs during aggressive interactions with other males, and the amount of soft song produced is the only singing behavior that can be used to reliably predict a subsequent attack by the singer. Although soft song is clearly an important signal in this species, little is known about the acoustic structure of soft song or about how that structure compares to the structure of normal 'broadcast song'. We recorded a large sample of soft songs and broadcast songs from 10 male song sparrows, and measured song amplitudes in the field while controlling the subject's distance to a calibrated microphone. We show that song sparrow males produce songs over a wide range of amplitudes, with soft songs in the range of 55-77 dB sound pressure level and broadcast songs in the range of 78-85 dB. We present evidence for two types of soft song: 'crystallized' soft songs that are broadcast repertoire song types sung at low amplitude, and 'warbled' soft songs that are not found in the broadcast repertoire. Although highly variable, warbled soft songs produced by individual birds could be grouped into song types based on spectrographic similarity. To our knowledge, a distinct repertoire of soft song types has not been previously reported for any songbird.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)662-676
Number of pages15
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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