Sympatric song variant in mountain chickadees Poecile gambeli does not reduce aggression from black-capped chickadees Poecile atricapillus

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When habitats overlap and species compete for resources, negative interactions frequently occur. Character displacement in the form of behavioural, social or morphological divergences between closely related species can act to reduce negative interactions and often arise in regions of geographic overlap. Mountain chickadees Poecile gambeli have an altered song structure in regions of geographic overlap with the behaviourally dominant black-capped chickadee Poecile atricapillus. Similar to European and Asian tits, altered song in mountain chickadees may decrease aggression from black-capped chickadees. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a playback study in Prince George, BC, Canada, to examine how black-capped chickadees responded to the songs of mountain chickadees recorded in regions where the two species were either sympatric or allopatric. We used principal component analysis (PCA) to collapse behavioural response variables into a single ‘approach’ variable and a single ‘vocalisation’ variable. We then used mixed-model analysis to determine whether there was a difference in approach or vocalisation response to the two types of mountain chickadee songs (allopatric songs and variant sympatric songs). Black-capped chickadees responded with equal intensity to both types of mountain chickadee songs, suggesting that the variant mountain chickadee songs from regions of sympatry with black-capped chickadees do not reduce heterospecific aggression. To our knowledge, this is the only instance of a character shift unassociated with reduced aggression in the family Paridae and raises interesting questions about the selective pressures leading to the evolution of this song divergence.

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