Difficulties when assessing birdsong learning programmes under field conditions: a re-evaluation of song repertoire flexibility in the great tit
Rivera-Gutierrez, Hector F.
Faculty of Sciences. Biology
, p. e16003,1-e16003,8
University of Antwerp
There is a remarkable diversity of song-learning strategies in songbirds. Establishing whether a species is closed- or open-ended is important to be able to interpret functional and evolutionary consequences of variation in repertoire size. Most of our knowledge regarding the timing of vocal learning is based on laboratory studies, despite the fact that these may not always replicate the complex ecological and social interactions experienced by birds in the wild. Given that field studies cannot provide the experimental control of laboratory studies, it may not be surprising that species such as the great tit that were initially assumed to be closed-ended learners have later been suggested to be open-ended learners. By using an established colour-ringed population, by following a standardized recording protocol, and by taking into account the species' song ecology (using only recordings obtained during peak of singing at dawn), we replicated two previous studies to assess song repertoire learning and flexibility in adult wild great tits elicited by social interactions. First, we performed a playback experiment to test repertoire plasticity elicited by novel versus own songs. Additionally, in a longitudinal study, we followed 30 males in two consecutive years and analysed whether new neighbours influenced any change in the repertoire. Contrary to the previous studies, song repertoire size and composition were found to be highly repeatable both between years and after confrontation with a novel song. Our results suggest that great tits are closed-ended learners and that their song repertoire probably does not change during adulthood. Methodological differences that may have led to an underestimation of the repertoires or population differences may explain the discrepancy in results with previous studies. We argue that a rigorous and standardized assessment of the repertoire is essential when studying age- or playback-induced changes in repertoire size and composition under field conditions.