Soft song in song sparrows: Response of males and females to an enigmatic signal

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Low-amplitude "soft song" is used by a variety of songbirds; in some species during aggressive encounters, in others during courtship, and yet others in both these contexts. In song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), soft song has thus far been observed only in aggressive encounters, where its production is a more reliable predictor of attack than any other signaling behavior. We used song playback to test the response of both male and female song sparrows to soft song. The design of the playback experiments took into account the existence of two classes of soft song: crystallized soft song, which consists of song types also found in the broadcast repertoire, and warbled soft song, which consists of less-structured song types not found in the broadcast repertoire. Female song sparrows responded with significantly less courtship display to the playback of crystallized soft song than to that of normal broadcast song, and response to warbled soft song was if anything lower than to that of crystallized soft song. Male song sparrows responded equally aggressively to normal broadcast song as to crystallized soft song, and equally aggressively to warbled soft song as to crystallized soft song. The female results support the conclusion that neither form of soft song functions in courtship. The male results suggest that the reliability of soft song as a signal of aggressive intent is not maintained by a receiver retaliation rule.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1267-1274
Number of pages8
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jun 2007


  • Aggressive signaling
  • Bird song
  • Melospiza melodia
  • Soft song
  • Song sparrow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Ecology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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