Early singers attend to conspecific but not heterospecific behavioural cues at dawn

Hodgson, Leah; Waas, Joseph; Foote, Jennifer R.

4 May 2018

During the dawn chorus songbirds initiate singing activities just prior to sunrise. Environmental factors affect the timing of the dawn chorus, but relatively little is known about how behavioural cues influence chorus timing. We assessed whether early playback of conspecific and heterospecific song influenced chorus start times in two early-singing temperate species, hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) and veery (C. fuscescens). We used arrays of GPS time-synchronized recorders to record the dawn chorus at 30 locations. In each location, thirty minutes prior to natural chorus initiation, we broadcast: (1) an early singing species (hermit thrush or veery), (2) a late singing species (black-throated green warbler or Nashville warbler), (3) a noise control, and (4) also recorded without playback (silent control). Playback treatments were separated by two-three days at each location. Both hermit thrush and veery sang significantly earlier in response to conspecific playback compared to noise or silent controls. Both species also sang earlier in response to conspecific playback compared to the day before or the day after playback. Neither species sang earlier in response to heterospecific playback (regardless of whether the broadcast species was a naturally early or late song initiator) compared to noise or silent controls. Our results support the theory that the dawn chorus is a communication network where individuals attend primarily to conspecific cues; heterospecific song appears to have minimal impacts on the chorus start times of the two early-singing species we investigated.