Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



Shizuka, D., Lein, M.R. & Chilton, G. (2016). Range-wide geographic variation in songs of golden-crowned sparrows. The Auk. 133: 520-529.

DOI: 10.1642/AUK-16-27.1


Copyright 2016 American Ornithologists’ Union. Used by permission.


Discrete geographic variation, or dialects, in songs of songbirds arise as a consequence of complex interactions between ecology and song learning. Four of the five species of Zonotrichia sparrows, including the model species White-crowned Sparrow (Z. leucophrys), have been studied with respect to the causes and consequences of geographic variation in song. Within White-crowned Sparrows, subspecies that migrate farther have larger range size of dialects. Here, we assessed geographic patterns of song variation in the fifth species of this genus, the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Z. atricapilla). We analyzed field-recorded songs from 2 sampling periods (1996–1998 and 2006–2013) covering most of its breeding range in western North America. All songs began with a descending whistle and most songs consisted of 3–4 phrases that contained combinations of whistles, buzzes, and trills. We identified 13 discrete song types based on unique sequences of phrase types and frequency changes between phrases. Over 90% of individuals sang 1 of 5 song types, and we found clear dialect structure composed of these 5 common song types. The geographic range of dialects spanned large distances (500 to 1,700 km), resembling the geographic structure of dialects in the long-distance migrant Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow (Z. l. gambelli), though locations of dialect boundaries differ between species. Because both Golden-crowned Sparrows and Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows migrate similarly long distances, our study provides support to the hypothesis that dialect range size correlates with migration distance. We found little evidence of change in dialect composition in 4 populations that were sampled 15 years apart, which suggests that the dialect structure is stable across multiple generations. Our study opens the door for further comparisons to investigate links between ecology and the emergence of song dialects in this well-studied genus.