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When Less Is Best: Female Brown-Headed Cowbirds Prefer Less Intense Male Displays

Authors
Journal
PLoS ONE
1932-6203
Publisher
Public Library of Science
Publication Date
Volume
7
Issue
5
Identifiers
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036130
Keywords
  • Research Article
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Community Ecology
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Evolutionary Processes
  • Sexual Selection
  • Animal Behavior
  • Behavioral Ecology
  • Zoology
  • Ornithology
Disciplines
  • Musicology
  • Physics

Abstract

Sexual selection theory predicts that females should prefer males with the most intense courtship displays. However, wing-spread song displays that male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) direct at females are generally less intense than versions of this display that are directed at other males. Because male-directed displays are used in aggressive signaling, we hypothesized that females should prefer lower intensity performances of this display. To test this hypothesis, we played audiovisual recordings showing the same males performing both high intensity male-directed and low intensity female-directed displays to females (N = 8) and recorded the females' copulation solicitation display (CSD) responses. All eight females responded strongly to both categories of playbacks but were more sexually stimulated by the low intensity female-directed displays. Because each pair of high and low intensity playback videos had the exact same audio track, the divergent responses of females must have been based on differences in the visual content of the displays shown in the videos. Preferences female cowbirds show in acoustic CSD studies are correlated with mate choice in field and captivity studies and this is also likely to be true for preferences elucidated by playback of audiovisual displays. Female preferences for low intensity female-directed displays may explain why male cowbirds rarely use high intensity displays when signaling to females. Repetitive high intensity displays may demonstrate a male's current condition and explain why these displays are used in male-male interactions which can escalate into physical fights in which males in poorer condition could be injured or killed. This is the first study in songbirds to use audiovisual playbacks to assess how female sexual behavior varies in response to variation in a male visual display.

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