Original Paper

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 67, Issue 4, pp 593-600

First online:

Male response to an aggressive visual signal, the wing wave display, in swamp sparrows

  • R. C. AndersonAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Duke University Email author 
  • , A. L. DuBoisAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Miami
  • , D. K. PiechAffiliated withDepartments of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, Duke University
  • , W. A. SearcyAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Miami
  • , S. NowickiAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Duke University

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Signaling often involves complex suites of behaviors that incorporate different sensory modalities. Whatever modality is used to establish that a signal functions in communication researchers must demonstrate that receivers respond to it. The territory defense response of male swamp sparrows involves a variety of behaviors that includes both vocal and visual displays. One of these, the “wing wave” display, is a distinctive movement that predicts physical attack. Here, we use robotic taxidermic mounts paired with song to test the hypothesis that wing waving is a signal and, specifically, that male receivers respond to wing waving as a signal of aggressive intent. As predicted, subjects responded more aggressively to the mount during wing waving trials than during stationary trials. A second experiment demonstrated that this effect cannot be attributed simply to increased attention to movement. Less expectedly, subjects did not alter their own display behavior in response to wing waving as compared to a static mount. We conclude that the wing wave display in the context of singing is a signal that functions in male–male aggressive communication. Questions remain, including whether wing waving functions as a signal in the absence of singing and whether wing waving and song are redundant signals or communicate different information.


Animal communication Aggressive signal Visual display Animal robot Wing wave Swamp sparrow