Discrimination between host songs by brood parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)

Mark E. Hauber, Heather E. Pearson, Andrea Reh, Angela Merges

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Songbirds can learn both to produce and to discriminate between different classes of acoustic stimuli. Varying levels of auditory discrimination may improve the fitness of individuals in certain ecological and social contexts and, thus, selection is expected to mold the cognitive abilities of different species according to the potential benefits of acoustic processing. Although fine-scale auditory discrimination of conspecific songs and calls has been frequently reported for brood parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), it remains unclear why and how they perceive differently the songs of their many host species. Using habituation-dishabituation paradigms and measuring behavioral and physiological (heart-rate) responses, we found that captive female cowbirds consistently discriminated between songs of two host species, the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Playback experiments with stimuli composed of con-specific followed by heterospecific vocalizations in the field also demonstrated discrimination between these heterospecific songs even though cowbirds were not attracted to playbacks of either host species' songs alone. Our results do not directly support a nest-searching function of heterospecific song discrimination by cowbirds and are most consistent with a function of the parasites' avoidance of attacks by their aggressive hosts. These data demonstrate discrimination between heterospecific vocalizations by brown-headed cowbirds and add a novel dimension to the already expansive auditory perceptual abilities of brood parasitic species and other songbirds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)129-137
Number of pages9
JournalAnimal cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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