Integrative and Comparative Biology
Vocal responses to anthropogenic noise have been documented in several species of songbird. However, only a few studies have investigated whether these adjustments are made in "real time" or are longer-term responses to particular soundscapes. Furthermore, increased ambient noise often is accompanied by structural changes to the habitat, including the introduction of noisy roadways and the removal of native vegetation. To date, no studies have simultaneously investigated the impact of both acoustic and structural disturbance on the same species. The relevance of each of these variables must be quantified if we wish to refine our understanding of the ways in which human activities influence avian communication. In this study, we quantified both among-male and within-male adjustments of song in response to ambient noise, and also investigated whether anthropogenic modifications of the habitat explained variations in songs' parameters. Recordings of songs were collected from male, breeding eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) residing in a network of nestboxes distributed across a gradient of anthropogenic disturbance. Levels of ambient noise were associated both with the average song-parameters of each male and with the change in a male's song-parameters between the loudest and quietest periods at his nest box. Males' song parameters were also related to habitat structure, as assessed using geographic information systems techniques. Males in noisier sites produced both higher-pitched and louder songs than did birds in quieter areas. Likewise, individual males demonstrated immediate adjustments to disturbance by noise, increasing the amplitude of their song between periods of quiet and loud ambient noise. Both spectral and temporal aspects of a male's song were related to whether his habitat was more "natural" or "anthropogenic." Our results indicate that males' adjustments of song may represent simultaneous responses to multiple modifications of the habitat by humans. However, we also conclude that biotic noise remains an important influence on avian signals even in anthropogenic areas. We suggest that human habitats provide an ideal setting in which to perform experiments on communication strategies, with resulting data poised to reveal underlying evolutionary processes while also informing conservation and management.
Kight, C. R., & Swaddle, J. P. (2015). Eastern bluebirds alter their song in response to anthropogenic changes in the acoustic environment. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 55(3), 418-431.