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Anim Behav. 2009 Mar;77(3):663-671.

Annual variation in vocal performance and its relationship with bill morphology in Lincoln's sparrows.

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Department of Biology and Curriculum in Neurobiology University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


Morphology may affect behavioural performance through a direct, physical link or through indirect, secondary mechanisms. Although some evidence suggests that the bill morphology of songbirds directly constrains vocal performance, bill morphology may influence vocal performance through indirect mechanisms also, such as one in which morphology influences foraging and thus the ability to perform some types of vocal behaviour. This raises the possibility for ecologically induced variation in the relationship between morphology and behaviour. To investigate this, I used an information theoretic approach to examine the relationship between bill morphology and several measures of vocal performance in Lincoln's sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii). I compared this relationship between two breeding seasons that differed markedly in ambient temperatures, phenology of habitat maturation, and food abundance. I found a strong curvilinear relationship between bill shape (height/width) and vocal performance in the seemingly less hospitable season but not in the other, leading to a difference between seasons in the population's mean vocal performance. Currently, I do not know the cause of this annual variation. However, it could be due to the effects of bill shape on foraging and therefore on time budget, energy balance, or some other behavioural or physiological response that manifests mostly under difficult environmental conditions or, alternatively, to associations between male quality and both vocal performance and bill shape. Regardless of the cause, these results suggest the presence of an indirect, ecologically mediated link between morphology and behavioural performance, leading to annual variation in the prevailing environment of acoustic signals.

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