The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is a successful urban adaptor known to display flexibility in foraging, nesting, and anti-predator behavior. Its vocal behavior is also complex, with a breeding song composed of a wide variety of non-mimetic and mimetic elements, or “syllable types.” We tested the hypothesis that Northern Mockingbird adaptation to urban settings includes changes in its vocal behavior in noisy urban environments. We studied an urban/suburban mockingbird population to test the effect of urban background noise on breeding song frequency and syllable-type composition. Given that urban noise overlaps most strongly with low-frequency vocalizations, a phenomenon known as “signal masking,” we predicted a positive association between noise levels and mockingbird average peak frequency (a measure of vocalization power). We further predicted a positive effect of noise levels on the peak frequency of the lowest-pitched syllable type in a mockingbird's song, no effect on the peak frequency of the highest-pitched syllable type, and thus a negative effect on mockingbird peak frequency range. Lastly, we predicted a negative effect of background noise on the use of syllable types experiencing heavy signal masking and, conversely, a positive effect on the use of syllable types experiencing minimal signal masking. We found a significant positive effect of noise levels on both average peak frequency and peak frequency of the lowest-pitched syllable type, but no effect on the peak frequency of the highest-pitched syllable type and peak frequency range. In addition, as background noise levels increased, we found significant declines in the percentages of heavily masked syllable types (1–3 kHz) and significant increases in the percentages of syllable types in the 3–5 kHz range; percentages of syllable types >5 kHz were, however, unaffected by background noise. These results were consistent with the hypothesis that Northern Mockingbird breeding songs change in pitch and syllable-type composition in noisy settings, providing further evidence that songs of urban-adapting species differ in noisy environments.
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Vol. 121 • No. 2