Integrative and Comparative Biology
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Sexual-selection theory posits that ornaments and displays can reflect a signaler's condition, which in turn is affected both by recent and developmental conditions. Moreover, developmental conditions can induce correlations between sexually selected and other traits if both types of traits exhibit developmental phenotypic plasticity in response to stressors. Thus, sexually selected traits may reflect recent and/or developmental characteristics of signalers. Here, we review data on the relationships between birdsong, a sexually selected trait, and developmental and current condition of birds from a long-term study of a population of song sparrows (Melospiza melodia). Field studies of free-living birds indicate that the complexity of a male's songs, a permanent trait, reflects the size of a song-control region of his brain (HVC), and is correlated with body size and several parameters of immunity, specifically investment in protective proteins. However, the performance of a male's songs, a dynamic trait, is not correlated to immune investment. Complexity of song is correlated with the glucocorticoid stress-response, and in some years response to stress predicts overwinter survival. Experimental manipulations have revealed that stressors in early life impair development of HVC, but that HVC recovers in size by adulthood. These manipulations result in impaired song-complexity and song-learning, but not song-performance. Experimental developmental stressors also affect growth, endocrine physiology, metabolism, and immune-function, often in a sex-specific manner. Combined, these studies suggest that song-complexity provides reliable information about early developmental experience, and about other traits that have critical developmental periods. Birdsong thus provides a multi-faceted sexually selected trait that may be an indicator both of developmental and recent conditions.