Pitch Processing Strategies in Birds: A Comparison of Laboratory and Field Studies

  • Laurene Ratcliffe
  • Ron Weisman
Part of the NATO ASI Series book series (NSSA, volume 228)


Over 50 studies have investigated how birds recognise conspecific song using playback (reviewed by Becker 1982; Weisman and Ratcliffe 1987). Typically, these experiments have compared the responses of territorial males (of mostly north temperate species) to broadcast of natural and altered species’ songs. Song playback simulates the intrusion of a rival male and usually elicits aggressive behaviour from the subject. If the alteration of a particular song feature reduces this aggression, compared to the natural song, one may infer the feature is important in song recognition. That is, either the song lacks species-specificity, or is recognised but not considered very threatening (Weary in press).


Pitch Contour Absolute Pitch Pitch Perception Pitch Ratio Relative Pitch 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Becker, P.H. 1982. The coding of species-specific characteristics in bird sounds. In: Acoustic Communication in Birds. (Ed. by D.E. Kroodsma, E.H. Miller & H. Ouellet ), pp. 213–252. Academic Press; New York.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Burns, E.M. and Ward, W.D. 1982. Intervals, scales, and tuning. In: The Psychology of Music. (Ed. by D. Deutsch ), pp. 241–265. Academic Press; New York.Google Scholar
  3. Dabelsteen, T. and Pedersen, S.B. 1985. Correspondence between messages in the full song of the blackbird Turdus merula and meanings to territorial males, as inferred from responses to computerized modifications of natural song. Z. Tierpsychol., 69, 149–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Dabelsteen, T. and Pedersen, S.B. 1990. Song and information about aggressive responses of blackbirds, Turdus merula: evidence from interactive playback experiments with territory owners. Anim. Behay., 40, 1158–1168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Date, E.M., Lemon, R.E., Weary, D.M. and Richter, A.K. 1991. Species identity by birdsong: discrete or additive information? Anim. Behay., 41, 111–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Deutsch, D. 1982. The processing of pitch combinations. In: The Psychology of Music. (Ed. by D. Deutsch ), pp. 271–312. Academic Press; New York.Google Scholar
  7. Dooling, R.J. 1980. Behavior and psychophysics of hearing in birds. In: Comparative Studies of Hearing in Vertebrates. (Ed. by A.N. Popper and R.R. Fay ), pp. 261–288. Springer-Verlag; Berlin.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ficken, M.S., Ficken, R.W. and Witkin, S.R. 1978. The vocal repertoire of the black-capped chickadee. Auk, 95, 34–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Glase, I.C. 1973. Ecology of social organization in the Black-capped Chickadee. Living Bird, 12, 235–267. Hill, B.G. and Lein, M.R. 1987. Function of frequency-shifted songs of Black-capped Chickadees. Condor, 89, 914–915.Google Scholar
  10. Hill, B.G. and Lein, M.R. 1989. Natural and simulated encounters between sympatric Black-capped Chickadees and Mountain Chickadees. Auk, 106, 645–652.Google Scholar
  11. Horn, A.G., Leonard, M.L., Ratcliffe, L.M., Shackleton, S. A. and Weisman, R.G. submitted. Frequency variation in the songs of Black-capped Chickadees (Parus atricapillus).Google Scholar
  12. Hulse, S.H. and Cynx, J. 1985. Relative pitch perception is constrained by absolute pitch in songbirds (Mimus, Molothrus, and Sturnus). J. Comp. Psychol., 99, 176–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hulse, S.H. and Cynx, J. 1986. Interval and contour in serial pitch perception by a songbird Sturnus vulgaris. J. Comp. Psychol., 100, 215–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hurly, T.A., Ratcliffe, L., Weary, D. and Weisman, R. submitted. White-throated sparrows can perceive pitch change using the frequency ratio independent of the frequency difference.Google Scholar
  15. Hurly, T.A., Ratcliffe, L. and Weisman, R. 1990. Relative pitch recognition in white-throated sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis. Anim. Behay., 40, 176–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hurly, T.A., Weisman, R.G., Ratcliffe, L. and Johnsrude, I.S. 1991. Absolute and relative pitch production in the song of the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). Bioacoustics, 3, 81–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lohr, B., Nowicki, S. and Weisman, R. 1991. Pitch production in Carolina chickadee songs. Condor, 93, 197–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Miyazaki, M. 1989. Absolute pitch identification: effects of timbre and pitch region. Music Perception, 7, 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Nelson, D.A. 1988. Feature weighting in species song recognition by the field sparrow, Spizella pusilla. Behaviour, 106, 158–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Nelson, D.A. 1989. The importance of invariant and distinctive features in species recognition of bird song. Condor, 91, 120–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Nowicki, S. and Marier, P. 1988. How do birds sing? Music Perception, 5, 391–426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Odum, E.P. 1941. Annual cycle of the Black-capped Chickadee. Auk, 58, 314–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Page, S.C., Hulse, S.H. and Cynx, J. 1989. Relative pitch perception in the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris); further evidence for an elusive phenomenon. J. Exp. Psych.: Anim. Behay. Proc., 15, 137–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ratcliffe, L.M. 1990. Neighbour/stranger discrimination of whistled songs in black-capped chickadees. Proc. XX Int. Orn. Congress, (Abstract #423).Google Scholar
  25. Ratcliffe, L.M. and Boag, P.T. 1987. Effects of colour bands on male competition and sexual attractiveness in zebra finches (Poephila guttata). Can. J. Zool., 65, 333–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Ratcliffe, L.M. and Weisman, R.G. 1985. Frequency shift in the song of the Black-capped Chickadee. Condor, 87, 555–556.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ratcliffe, L.M. and Weisman, R.G. 1986. Song sequence discrimination in the Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapillus). J. Comp. Psychol., 100, 361–367.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Searcy, W.A. 1990. Species recognition of song by female red-winged blackbirds. Anim. Behay., 40, 1119–1127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Shackleton, S.A., Ratcliffe, L. and Weary, D.M. submitted. Relative frequency parameters and song recognition in black-capped chickadees.Google Scholar
  30. Ward, W.D. and Burns, E.M. 1982. Absolute pitch. In: The Psychology of Music. (Ed. by D. Deutsch ), pp. 431–449. Academic Press; New York.Google Scholar
  31. Weary, D.M. 1990. Categorization of song notes by great tits, which acoustic features are used and why? Anim. Behay., 39, 450–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Weary, D.M. in press. How birds use relative and absolute pitch to recognize their songs. In: Quantitative Analyses of Behavior: W 1.14.Google Scholar
  33. Weary, D.M., Lemon, R.E. and Date, E.M. 1986. Acoustic features used in song discrimination by the Veery. Ethology, 72, 199–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Weary, D.M. and Weisman, R.G. 1991. Operant discrimination of frequency and frequency ratio in the black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus). J. Comp. Psychol., in press.Google Scholar
  35. Weary, D.M., Weisman, R.G., Lemon, R.E., Chin, T. and Mongrain, J. 1991. Use of the relative frequency of notes by veeries in song recognition and production. Auk, in press.Google Scholar
  36. Weisman, R.G. and Ratcliffe, L.M. 1987. How birds identify species information in song: a pattern recognition approach. Learning and Motivation 18, 80–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Weisman, R.G. and Ratcliffe, L.M. 1989. Absolute and relative pitch processing in black-capped chickadees, Parus atricapillus. Anim. Behay., 38, 685–692.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Weisman, R.G. and Ratcliffe, L.M. 1991. The perception of pitch constancy in bird songs. In: Cognitive Aspects of Stimulus Control. (Ed. by W.K. Honig & J.G. Fetterman), pp. 243–261. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.; Hillsdale, New Jersey.Google Scholar
  39. Weisman, R.G., Ratcliffe, L.M., Johnsrude, I.S. and Hurly, T.A. 1990. Absolute and relative pitch production in the song of the Black-capped Chickadee. Condor, 92, 118–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laurene Ratcliffe
    • 1
  • Ron Weisman
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada

Personalised recommendations