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Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Mar 22;272(1563):651-6.

Ambient noise and the design of begging signals.

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Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada B3H 4J1.


The apparent extravagance of begging displays is usually attributed to selection for features, such as loud calls, that make the signal costly and hence reliable. An alternative explanation, however, is that these design features are needed for effective signal transmission and reception. Here, we test the latter hypothesis by examining how the begging calls of tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) nestlings and the response to these calls by parents are affected by ambient noise. In a field study, we found that call length, amplitude and frequency range all increased with increasing noise levels at nests. In the laboratory, however, only call amplitude increased in response to the playback of noise to nestlings. In field playbacks to parents, similar levels of noise abolished parental preferences for higher call rates, but the preference was restored when call amplitude was increased to the level that nestlings had used in the laboratory study. Our results show that nestling birds, like other acoustic signallers, consistently increase call amplitude in response to ambient noise and this response appears to enhance discrimination by receivers. Thus, selection for signal efficacy may explain some of the seemingly extravagant features of begging displays.

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