Complexity, Predictability and Time Homogeneity of Syntax in the Songs of Cassin’s Vireo (Vireo cassinii)
OPEN PloS one | 7 Apr 2016
Many species of animals deliver vocalizations in sequences presumed to be governed by internal rules, though the nature and complexity of these syntactical rules have been investigated in relatively few species. Here I present an investigation into the song syntax of fourteen male Cassin’s Vireos (Vireo cassinii), a species whose song sequences are highly temporally structured. I compare their song sequences to three candidate models of varying levels of complexity-zero-order, first-order and second-order Markov models-and employ novel methods to interpolate between these three models. A variety of analyses, including sequence simulations, Fisher’s exact tests, and model likelihood analyses, showed that the songs of this species are too complex to be described by a zero-order or first-order Markov model. The model that best fit the data was intermediate in complexity between a first- and second-order model, though I also present evidence that some transition probabilities are conditioned on up to three preceding phrases. In addition, sequences were shown to be predictable with more than 54% accuracy overall, and predictability was positively correlated with the rate of song delivery. An assessment of the time homogeneity of syntax showed that transition probabilities between phrase types are largely stable over time, but that there was some evidence for modest changes in syntax within and between breeding seasons, a finding that I interpret to represent changes in breeding stage and social context rather than irreversible, secular shifts in syntax over time. These findings constitute a valuable addition to our understanding of bird song syntax in free-living birds, and will contribute to future attempts to understand the evolutionary importance of bird song syntax in avian communication.
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