Song dialects drive species discrimination in nestling songbirds
Oscine birds preferentially respond to certain sounds over others from an early age, which focuses subsequent learning onto sexually relevant songs.1,2,3 Songs vary both across species and, due to cultural evolution, among populations of the same species. As a result, early song responses are expected to be shaped by selection both to avoid the fitness costs of cross-species learning4 and to promote learning of population-typical songs.5 These sources of selection are not mutually exclusive but can result in distinct geographic patterns of song responses in juvenile birds: if the risks of interspecific mating are the main driver of early song discrimination, then discrimination should be strongest where closely related species co-occur.4 In contrast, if early discrimination primarily facilitates learning local songs, then it should be tuned to songs typical of the local dialect.5,6,7 Here, we experimentally assess the drivers of song discrimination in nestling pied flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca). We first demonstrate that early discrimination against the songs of the closely related collared flycatcher (F. albicollis) is not strongly affected by co-occurrence. Second, across six European populations, we show that nestlings’ early song responses are tuned to their local song dialect and that responses to the songs of collared flycatchers are similarly weak as to those of other conspecific dialects. Taken together, these findings provide clear experimental support for the hypothesis that cultural evolution, in conjunction with associated learning predispositions, drives the emergence of pre-mating reproductive barriers.