Although vocal mimicry in songbirds is well documented, little is known about the function of such mimicry. One possibility is that the mimic produces the vocalisations of predatory or aggressive species to deter potential predators or competitors. Alternatively, these sounds may be learned in error as a result of their acoustic properties such as structural simplicity. We determined the mimetic repertoires of a population of male spotted bowerbirds Ptilonorhynchus maculatus, a species that mimics predatory and aggressive species. Although male mimetic repertoires contained an overabundance of vocalisations produced by species that were generally aggressive, there was also a marked prevalence of mimicry of sounds that are associated with alarm such as predator calls, alarm calls and mobbing calls, irrespective of whether the species being mimicked was aggressive or not. We propose that it may be the alarming context in which these sounds are first heard that may lead both to their acquisition and to their later reproduction. We suggest that enhanced learning capability during acute stress may explain vocal mimicry in many species that mimic sounds associated with alarm.
Vocal mimicry Acute stress Alarm call Bowerbird
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We would like to thank James Nicholls for his assistance both in and out of the field. We are grateful to QPWS for field site access and our field assistants for all their help. We thank Anne Goldizen for assistance with ethics and Tom Little for statistical advice. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on this manuscript. LAK would like to thank NERC for funding. This research was approved by the University of Queensland Animal Ethics Committee (SIB/272/07/NERC & SIB/326/08/NERC) and the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency (WISP04545307 and WITK04545407).
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