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Proc Biol Sci. 2000 Dec 7;267(1460):2419-24.

Nestling growth and song repertoire size in great reed warblers: evidence for song learning as an indicator mechanism in mate choice.

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Department of Biology, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA.


Females of many songbird species show a preference for mating with males that have larger song repertoires, but the advantages associated with this preference are uncertain. We tested the hypothesis that song complexity can serve as an indicator of male quality because the development of the brain regions underlying song learning and production occurs when young birds typically face nutritional and other stresses, so that song reflects how well a male fared during post-hatch development. A key prediction of this hypothesis is that variation in nestling condition should correspond to variation in the adult song repertoires of individuals. We used data from a long-term study of the great reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) to test this prediction, correlating two measures of nestling development with subsequent repertoire size of males. We found that the length of the innermost primary feather, a standard measure of development, significantly predicted first-year repertoire size. The relationship between repertoire size and body mass was nearly significant, in spite of the large variance inherent in this measure. These data support the idea that song may provide females with information about a male's response to developmental stress, which in turn is expected to correlate with indirect or direct benefits she might receive.

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