The fee-bee song of male black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) is considered a single-type song that singers transpose up and down a continuous frequency range. While the ability to shift song pitch in this species provides a mechanism for song matching as an aversive signal in male-male territorial song contests, the functional significance of this behaviour during the “solo” performances of males during the dawn chorus is unclear. We analysed the dawn chorus songs and singing behaviour of males whose winter-flock dominance status we determined. We used correlation analysis to show that pitch shifts were accompanied by changes to other fine structural characteristics in song, including temporal and relative amplitude parameters. We also found that songs of socially dominant males and songs of their most subordinate flockmates could be distinguished using these methods by the way they performed a between-note frequency measure accompanying pitch shifts. That is, a ratio measure of the internote frequency interval remained constant for songs of high-ranking birds despite changes in absolute pitch, while low-ranking males sang a smaller ratio as they shifted to higher absolute pitches. These findings identify previously unrecognised variation in the songs of black-capped chickadees. More importantly, they indicate a mechanism by which pitch shifting during the dawn chorus of black-capped chickadees could provide a reliable indicator of relative male quality.
Flocks were caught before breeding from winter feeders and monitored