Effective conspecific communication with aberrant calls in the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

Csaba Moskát, David M. Taylor, Márk E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Abstract: The obligate brood parasitic common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is best known for its two-note “cu-coo” call, which is uttered repeatedly by adult males during the breeding season. This call advertises the male’s claim for his territory. A rare, aberrant version (“cu-kee”) was discovered in a population of cuckoos in central Hungary. In a playback experiment, we simulated conspecific territorial intrusions using either aberrant call sequences or normal calls (as control). Cuckoos responded to both calls similarly by approaching the speaker, flying around it several times, and perching on nearby trees. To identify the role of each note of these cuckoo calls, we also played sequences of the first (“cu”) or second (“coo” or “kee”) notes of the calls. Territorial males responded to first notes at similarly high frequencies as to each of the full calls, whereas responses toward either second note type were nearly absent. Thus, the first notes of both typical and aberrant cuckoo calls contain sufficient information to recognize conspecific males and the novel calls did not reduce the efficiency of male-male communication in cuckoos because the aberration occurred in the less functional second note. Significance statement: Birds use songs and calls to communicate with each other, including advertising their territories to keep competitors away. However, when the acoustic signal is atypical and distorted, the receiver individual may not process it correctly. Common cuckoos recognize a territorial intruder by their well-known “cu-coo” calls. We studied a rare, aberrant version of the common cuckoo call (“cu-kee”), which differed from the normal call in the second note of the two-partite call. However, cuckoos responded similarly to both of the normal and aberrant calls in a playback experiment. When the first or second parts of the different calls were played separately, only the first part of the cuckoo calls was effective in eliciting territorial defence. Consequently, the aberrant second note did not reduce cuckoos’ communication efficiency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • Bird call
  • Information content
  • Playback
  • Semantics
  • Territorial defence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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