Communication between parents and dependent offspring is critical not only during provisioning, but also in antipredator contexts. In altricial birds, a top cause of reproductive failure is nest predation, and alarm calls both by parents and chicks can serve to alert others and increase the likelihood of offspring escaping predation. Understanding the factors that determine the strength of parental antipredator responses to different nestling alarm calls can provide insight into parent–offspring recognition. The prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea), a host of the obligate brood parasite, the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), never rejects cowbird young and raises the parasite together with its own offspring. To determine whether warbler parents learn cowbird nestling alarm calls, we presented experimentally parasitized or non-parasitized parents with playbacks of conspecific warbler, parasitic cowbird, and a harmless heterospecific control, eastern bluebird (Sialis sialis), nestling alarm calls. We recorded the latency to respond and the number of chips given by members of the resident warbler pair. We found that parents were most likely to respond to warbler nestling alarm calls, least likely to respond to bluebird calls, with a statistically intermediate likelihood of responding to cowbird calls. Critically, current and past parasitism status did not affect the likelihood of response to any playback or the number of chips given, however, currently parasitized parents had greater response latencies to playbacks than non-parasitized parents. These results suggest that warbler parents do not learn cowbird alarm calls from breeding experiences and, in turn, that cowbirds may employ a generalized, bet-hedging alarm call.
- Brood parasitism
- Distress call
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology