Heterospecific eavesdropping on an anti-parasitic referential alarm call

Shelby L. Lawson, Janice K. Enos, Niko C. Mendes, Sharon A. Gill, Mark E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Referential alarm calls occur across taxa to warn of specific predator types. However, referential calls may also denote other types of dangers. Yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia) produce “seet” calls specifically to warn conspecifics of obligate brood parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), which lay their eggs in the warblers’ and other species’ nests. Sympatric hosts of cowbirds that do not have referential alarm calls may eavesdrop on the yellow warbler’s seet call as a warning system for brood parasites. Using playback presentations, we found that red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) eavesdrop on seet calls of yellow warblers, and respond as much to seet calls as to cowbird chatters and predator calls. Red-winged blackbirds appear to eavesdrop on seets as warning system to boost frontline defenses on their territories, although they do not seem to perceive the warblers’ seets as a cue for parasitism per se, but rather for general danger to the nest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number143
JournalCommunications Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 31 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)

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