Wild Birds Learn to Eavesdrop on Heterospecific Alarm Calls

  • Magrath R
  • Haff T
  • McLachlan J
 et al. 
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Many vertebrates gain critical information about danger by eavesdropping on other species' alarm calls [1], providing an excellent context in which to study information flow among species in animal communities [2-4]. A fundamental but unresolved question is how individuals recognize other species' alarm calls. Although individuals respond to heterospecific calls that are acoustically similar to their own, alarms vary greatly among species, and eavesdropping probably also requires learning [1]. Surprisingly, however, we lack studies demonstrating such learning. Here, we show experimentally that individual wild superb fairy-wrens, Malurus cyaneus, can learn to recognize previously unfamiliar alarm calls. We trained individuals by broadcasting unfamiliar sounds while simultaneously presenting gliding predatory birds. Fairy-wrens in the experiment originally ignored these sounds, but most fled in response to the sounds after two days' training. The learned response was not due to increased responsiveness in general or to sensitization following repeated exposure and was independent of sound structure. Learning can therefore help explain the taxonomic diversity of eavesdropping and the refining of behavior to suit the local community. In combination with previous work on unfamiliar predator recognition (e.g., [5]), our results imply rapid spread of anti-predator behavior within wild populations and suggest methods for training captive-bred animals before release into the wild [6]. A remaining challenge is to assess the importance and consequences of direct association of unfamiliar sounds with predators, compared with social learning - such as associating unfamiliar sounds with conspecific alarms.

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