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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 30;108(35):14549-54. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1109091108. Epub 2011 Aug 29.

Low-frequency songs lose their potency in noisy urban conditions.

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Behavioral Biology, Institute of Biology (IBL), Leiden University, 2300 RA, Leiden, The Netherlands.


Many animal species communicate with their mates through acoustic signals, but this communication seems to become a struggle in urbanized areas because of increasing anthropogenic noise levels. Several bird species have been reported to increase song frequency by which they reduce the masking impact of spectrally overlapping noise. However, it remains unclear whether such behavioral flexibility provides a sufficient solution to noisy urban conditions or whether there are hidden costs. Species may rely on low frequencies to attract and impress females, and the use of high frequencies may, therefore, come at the cost of reduced attractiveness. We studied the potential tradeoff between signal strength and signal detection in a successful urban bird species, the great tit (Parus major). We show that the use of low-frequency songs by males is related to female fertility as well as sexual fidelity. We experimentally show that urban noise conditions impair male-female communication and that signal efficiency depends on song frequency in the presence of noise. Our data reveal a response advantage for high-frequency songs during sexual signaling in noisy conditions, whereas low-frequency songs are likely to be preferred. These data are critical for our understanding of the impact of anthropogenic noise on wild-ranging birds, because they provide evidence for low-frequency songs being linked to reproductive success and to be affected by noise-dependent signal efficiency.

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