Quantifying song behavior in a free-living, light-weight, mobile bird using accelerometers

Elena Eisenring, Marcel Eens, Jean Nicolas Pradervand, Alain Jacot, Jan Baert, Eddy Ulenaers, Michiel Lathouwers, Ruben Evens

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To acquire a fundamental understanding of animal communication, continuous observations in a natural setting and at an individual level are required. Whereas the use of animal-borne acoustic recorders in vocal studies remains challenging, light-weight accelerometers can potentially register individuals’ vocal output when this coincides with body vibrations. We collected one-dimensional accelerometer data using light-weight tags on a free-living, crepuscular bird species, the European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus). We developed a classification model to identify four behaviors (rest, sing, fly, and leap) from accelerometer data and, for the purpose of this study, validated the classification of song behavior. Male nightjars produce a distinctive “churring” song while they rest on a stationary song post. We expected churring to be associated with body vibrations (i.e., medium-amplitude body acceleration), which we assumed would be easy to distinguish from resting (i.e., low-amplitude body acceleration). We validated the classification of song behavior using simultaneous GPS tracking data (i.e., information on individuals’ movement and proximity to audio recorders) and vocal recordings from stationary audio recorders at known song posts of one tracked individual. Song activity was detected by the classification model with an accuracy of 92%. Beyond a threshold of 20 m from the audio recorders, only 8% of the classified song bouts were recorded. The duration of the detected song activity (i.e., acceleration data) was highly correlated with the duration of the simultaneously recorded song bouts (correlation coefficient = 0.87, N = 10, S = 21.7, p =.001). We show that accelerometer-based identification of vocalizations could serve as a promising tool to study communication in free-living, small-sized birds and demonstrate possible limitations of audio recorders to investigate individual-based variation in song behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere8446
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022


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