The two-note fee-bee song of male black-capped chickadees functions during the dawn chorus, in part, as a sexual signal across large distances. How song structure might encode information about male quality, however, remains unclear. We studied the availability of cues to male social rank (a proxy indicator of male quality), within the acoustic structure of dawn chorus songs of male chickadees whose flock dominance status we determined the previous winter. We used analysis of variance and discriminant function analysis to demonstrate that five temporal, frequency or relative amplitude features of song can predict individual identity but not the category of social rank (dominant versus subordinate) to which individuals belong. After transmitting chickadee songs through the forest and re-recording them at four broadcast distances, we found that song structure continued to effectively predict singer identity by our statistical methods despite significant acoustic degradation for as long as songs remained audible (up to 80 m). In particular, the relative frequency interval between the two notes is both the most invariant between-male measure and among the most individually distinctive. We conclude the structure of dawn chorus songs could function across large distances to signal the identity of familiar singing males whose relative quality is known to the listener from other interactions (such as encounters within winter flocks.
Birds caught at winter feeders and sexed, aged. Relative social rank observed.