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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Assessing vocal performance in complex birdsong: a novel approach

Nicole Geberzahn123* and Thierry Aubin12

Author Affiliations

1 Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Centre de Neuroscience Paris Sud, UMR 8195, Orsay, 91405, France

2 Université Paris Sud, Equipe Communications Acoustiques/CNPS, Bat. 446, Orsay, 91405, France

3 Current address: Laboratoire Éthologie Cognition Développement, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, 200 Avenue de la République 92001, Nanterre Cedex, France

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BMC Biology 2014, 12:58  doi:10.1186/s12915-014-0058-4

Published: 6 August 2014



Vocal performance refers to the ability to produce vocal signals close to physical limits. Such motor skills can be used by conspecifics to assess a signaler’s competitive potential. For example it is difficult for birds to produce repeated syllables both rapidly and with a broad frequency bandwidth. Deviation from an upper-bound regression of frequency bandwidth on trill rate has been widely used to assess vocal performance. This approach is, however, only applicable to simple trilled songs, and even then may be affected by differences in syllable complexity.


Using skylarks (Alauda arvensis) as a birdsong model with a very complex song structure, we detected another performance trade-off: minimum gap duration between syllables was longer when the frequency ratio between the end of one syllable and the start of the next syllable (inter-syllable frequency shift) was large. This allowed us to apply a novel measure of vocal performance - vocal gap deviation: the deviation from a lower-bound regression of gap duration on inter-syllable frequency shift. We show that skylarks increase vocal performance in an aggressive context suggesting that this trait might serve as a signal for competitive potential.


We suggest using vocal gap deviation in future studies to assess vocal performance in songbird species with complex structure.

Aggressive signaling; Alauda arvensis; Birdsong; Complex song; Contextual variation; Production limits