At the onset of the winter breeding season, male humpback whales begin a prominent breeding behaviour, singing. Early songs are produced on summer feeding grounds prior to migration, but little is known about the proximate cues for the initiation of this behaviour, nor where or when it begins. We document the phenology of humpback whale singing along the western North Atlantic coast ranging from Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada to Massachusetts, USA through the fall-winter of 2015–16 (seven stations) and 2016–17 (three stations). Acoustic data from static recorders were categorised as containing humpback whale non-song calls, song fragments, or full songs. First heard in September, singing occurred throughout the fall-winter, but was not regular until October. Latitude, temperature, photoperiod, sea surface pressure, and wind speed were considered as potential explanatory variables for four definitions of song onset using forward stepwise regression. Final models included the environmental variables with photoperiod negatively correlated to singing (coefficient = −657; p-value = 0.04). Reliable environmental cues, such as photoperiod, may produce a heritable physiological response, resulting in whales acquiring the capacity and motivation to sing, with the subsequent timing and nature of song production influenced by other factors.
Humpback whale, song, timing, migration