Referential alarm calling elicits future vigilance in a host of an avian brood parasite

Shelby L. Lawson, Janice K. Enos, Caroline S. Wolf, Katharine Stenstrom, Sarah K. Winnicki, Thomas J. Benson, Mark E. Hauber, Sharon A. Gill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia) use referential 'seet' calls to warn mates of brood parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). In response to seet calls during the day, female warblers swiftly move to sit tightly on their nests, which may prevent parasitism by physically blocking female cowbirds from inspecting and laying in the nest. However, cowbirds lay their eggs just prior to sunrise, not during daytime. We experimentally tested whether female warblers, warned by seet calls on one day, extend their anti-parasitic responses into the future by engaging in vigilance at sunrise on the next day, when parasitism may occur. As predicted, daytime seet call playbacks caused female warblers to leave their nests less often on the following morning, relative to playbacks of both their generic anti-predator calls and silent controls. Thus, referential calls do not only convey the identity or the type of threat at present but also elicit vigilance in the future to provide protection from threats during periods of heightened vulnerability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20210377
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 15 2021


  • alarm calling
  • episodic-like memory
  • host-parasite interactions
  • referential alarm calling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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