The hearing of an avian predator and its avian prey
Auditory tuning curves of a small songbird, the great tit (Parus major), and of its principal avian predator, the European sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), were determined by an operant positive reinforcement conditioning procedure, using the method of constant stimuli. Thresholds were measured by the criterion of a 50% correct response and a d′ of 1.5 for intra- and interspecific comparison, respectively. The best frequency of both species was 2 kHz, the hawk being 6.5 dB SPL more sensitive than the tit. Although the high-frequency cutoff was very similar in both species, at 8 kHz the great tit was about 30 dB more sensitive than the sparrowhawk. The hearing abilities of the prey and its predator are discussed with reference to the acoustic alarm communication of great tits confronted with sparrowhawks. Two alarm calls lie in the frequency range of the best hearing of both the hawk and the tits: the mobbing call and a call given in response to a nearby hawk when fleeing from it. In contrast, the “seeet” call, an alarm call given mainly in response to distant flying sparrowhawks, can only be heard well by the tit. The implications of these results for hypotheses concerning the evolution of alarm calls in small songbirds are discussed.