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Phenotypic plasticity in nest departure calls: weighing costs and benefits


In birds, male song has been extensively studied, but female vocalizations have received little attention. Females of several North American species produce a unique vocalization, the nest departure call (NDC), upon leaving nests. Producing NDCs has costs due to acoustical properties that make nests easy to locate by predators. Thus, NDCs must also have benefits that balance or outweigh costs, and females should modulate call production as costs and benefits change. We explored whether female song sparrows, Melospiza melodia, adjust calling rate to reflect differential costs and benefits of calling induced by male presence, male quality (measured by body mass and song complexity), nest predator presence and nest height. Results suggest that calls benefit females by promoting male nest guarding and that females display adaptive plasticity in call production. Specifically, calling rate increased when the male was present, and male nest guarding increased when females gave an NDC. Females called less in the presence of a model nest predator, probably because the perceived costs of predator attraction outweighed the benefits of male recruitment. Conversely, females with heavier mates called more, perhaps because the efficacy of male nest guarding increases with mass. In addition, females called more from elevated nests in the presence of the predator and decreased calling later in the day. Male song complexity failed to predict calling rate, suggesting that this sexually selected trait does not reflect direct benefits gained by producing an NDC. Plasticity in calling probably exists because context-appropriate communication elevates fitness, whereas contextual mistakes in the decision to communicate result in fitness declines. © 2014 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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