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Relative Pitch and the Song of Black-Capped Chickadees

Chickadees, like people, have a strong sense of relative pitch. These birds use skillful, precise pitch changes to advertise their quality and attract mates

Ron Weisman, Laurene Ratcliffe

Sound spectrogram...Click to Enlarge Image

Black-capped chickadees are familiar residents of North America. They're known for their "chick-a-dee" call, by which male and female birds alike keep in touch with their flock. But male chickadees sing a special song—the "fee-bee" call—to open the breeding season, and as they do so they display remarkable musical skill. The authors find that young birds learn from adult males precise control of relative pitch—the same ability that allows a barbershop trio to form a tonic triad from a single starting note. Field observations suggest that individual males announce their territory with these songs and that females choose mates based on the precision of their relative pitch.


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