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Anim Behav. 2000 Feb;59(2):443-458.

Female European starling preference and choice for variation in conspecific male song.

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Department of Psychology, Johns Hopkins University


Data from several field studies support the hypothesis that female European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, attend to variation among the songs of conspecific males when making mate-choice decisions. However, for a variety of methodological reasons, direct evidence for female preferences based on song in starlings has been lacking. This study presents a novel technique for assaying directly female preference and choice in European starlings by using the presentation of conspecific male song as an operant reinforcer in a controlled environment. Using an apparatus in which the playback of songs from different nestboxes is under the operant control of the subject, we demonstrate how the reinforcing properties of conspecific song can be used to measure female preference and choice. The results of the study suggest three conclusions. First, female starlings prefer naturally ordered conspecific male songs over reversed songs. Second, female starlings display robust preferences for longer compared with shorter male song bouts. Behaviour in the operant apparatus varied directly with male song bout length. Third, preferences based on song bout length are sex specific. Male starlings failed to respond differentially to the same stimuli for which females showed strong preferences. These results suggest that male-male variation in song bout length is important for mate choice among starlings. In addition, we detail the use of a novel behavioural assay for measuring female preferences that can be applied to similar behaviours in other species of songbirds.


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