On the sparrowhawk-like calls of female common cuckoos: testing for heterospecific vocal mimicry in a conspecific functional context

Csaba Moskát, Márk E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Abstract: Mimicry is a widespread phenomenon whereby predatory or parasitic individuals can access unsuspecting prey or hosts for the former’s benefit. For example, brood parasitic common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) evolved several adaptations to trick hosts, including host-mimetic eggs, a barred chest plumage resembling the predatory Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), and the female cuckoos’ bubbling calls considered as highly similar to this raptor’s calls. The sparrowhawk-like call mimicry is thought to threaten hosts while female cuckoos lay their eggs, although the similarity is restricted to the call’s fundamental frequency and not to its harmonics. However, these calls are also used in conspecific contexts, for example for mate attraction. If vocal mimicry is highly adapted toward the heterospecific function, it might cause reduced effectiveness in conspecific communication. We played cuckoo bubbling and sparrowhawk calls to territorial male cuckoos to test whether conspecific receivers process the mimetic calls accurately. All male cuckoos approached the speaker when female cuckoo calls were played, but rarely (7%) approached it when sparrowhawk or green woodpecker (Picus viridis; control) calls were played. When we excised the harmonic overtones from the sparrowhawk stimulus files, making these calls structurally more similar to the pure-tone female cuckoo calls, nearly half (43%) of the cuckoo males approached the speaker. Consequently, the difference in calls’ harmonic structure may explain one component of the inaccurate state of this acoustic mimicry. This imperfect mimicry by female cuckoos’ bubbling call to sparrowhawk call may ensure the multipurpose functions of this vocalization, including both intra- and interspecific contexts. Significance statement: Common cuckoos are obligate brood parasites, laying their eggs into other species’ nests. During laying, female cuckoos utter sparrowhawk-like vocalizations (bubbling calls), to threaten hosts and to evade their defenses. However, they also use this same call to communicate with other female and male cuckoos. If the bubbling call mimics closely sparrowhawks’ calls, cuckoos may also recognize and respond to the sparrowhawk call, the call of a predator, as a cuckoo call. We used playback experiments to show that cuckoos distinguished between bubbling and sparrowhawk calls in nearly all cases. When we manipulated sparrowhawk calls to be more similar acoustically to bubbling calls by deleting overtones, recognition errors increased from 7 to 43%. We conclude that mimicry of sparrowhawk calls by female cuckoo calls is imperfect, which allows it to function in cuckoo-cuckoo communication effectively.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number111
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Acoustic mimicry
  • Call structure
  • Fundamental
  • Inaccurate mimicry
  • Overtones
  • Playback

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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