Animal Cognition

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 677–688 | Cite as

Biological relevance of acoustic signal affects discrimination performance in a songbird

  • Marisa Hoeschele
  • Lauren M. Guillette
  • Christopher B. Sturdy
Original Paper


The feebee song of the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is a two-note, tonal song that can be sung at different absolute pitches within an individual. However, these two notes are produced at a consistent relative pitch. Moreover, dominant birds more reliably produce songs with this species-typical interval, compared to subordinate birds. Therefore, we asked whether presenting the species-typical relative pitch interval would aid chickadees in solving pitch interval discriminations. We found that species-typical relative pitch intervals selectively facilitated discrimination performance using synthetic sine-wave stimuli. Using shifted feebee song notes from recordings of naturally produced songs, birds learned the discrimination in fewer trials overall compared to synthetic stimuli. These results may reflect greater generalization among stimuli that occur outside species-typical production parameters. In addition, although sex differences in performance are rarely observed in acoustic discriminations in chickadees, female chickadees performed more accurately compared to males.


Black-capped chickadee Chickadee Biological relevance Song Feebee song Pitch Relative pitch Pitch interval Discrimination Operant conditioning 



This study was conducted in accordance with the Canadian Council on Animal Care Guidelines and Policies with approval from the Animal Care and Use Committee for Biosciences for the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary Life and Environmental Sciences Animal Care Committee. Chickadees were captured and research was carried out under an Environment Canada Canadian Wildlife Service Scientific permit, Alberta Fish and Wildlife Capture and Research permits, and City of Edmonton Parks Permit. This research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant, an NSERC Discovery Accelerator Supplement, an Alberta Ingenuity Fund (AIF) New Faculty Grant, a Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) New Opportunities Grant, and the CFI Infrastructure Operating Fund along with start-up funding and CFI partner funding from the University of Alberta to CBS. MH was supported by Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, an NSERC Post-Graduate Scholarship-Doctoral award, and an Alberta Ingenuity Graduate Student Scholarship. LMG was supported by an Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship. We would like to thank Tara Farrell, Dawson Clary, Shannon Wowk, Ashley Mckillop, Craig Anderson, Justin Duval, and Jon Gaspar for their help running this experiment. We would also like to thank Lou Omerzu and Isaac Lank for their many hours of expert and excellent technical support.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marisa Hoeschele
    • 1
  • Lauren M. Guillette
    • 1
  • Christopher B. Sturdy
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada
  2. 2.Centre for NeuroscienceUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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