Inspection of mob-calls as sources of predator information: response of migrant and resident birds in the Neotropics

  • Joseph J. NoceraEmail author
  • Philip D. Taylor
  • Laurene M. Ratcliffe
Original Paper


Migrating animals face numerous mortality risks, such as novel predators with which they may not be accustomed. Most animals can recognize predators innately; however, additional predator information can be collected to enhance familiarity. Because migrating birds rarely participate in mobs, they may seek alternative information sources such as cues provided by other birds that can provide information on predator location, identity, and degree of threat. We predicted that Nearctic–Neotropical migrants (hereafter, “migrants”) would react to vocal antipredator cues (e.g., mob-calls) of species residing in areas through which they migrate. To test this, we conducted experiments in Belize during spring migration, using playbacks of mob-calls of black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and blue-gray tanagers (Thraupis episcopus); tanagers are familiar to all birds in Belize; chickadees are novel to residents but familiar to migrants. This also allowed us to assess response to novel and out-of-context antipredator signals. Resident birds did not respond to novel chickadee mob-calls, but did respond to familiar tanager calls. Birds overwintering south of our study area, which were migrating during our study, responded most strongly to chickadee playbacks. Conversely, individuals of species that include our study area in their winter range did not respond to either playback. This is the first evidence that birds react to vocal antipredator cues during migration, which may be a strategy used by migrants to learn about predators. Although residents failed to recognize a foreign cue, migrating birds responded most strongly to the out-of-context chickadee cue, associated with breeding grounds >2,000 km northward.


Antipredator behavior Migration Mobbing Playbacks Predator recognition 



We are indebted to Trina Fitzgerald (of the Atlantic Bird Observatory) for orchestrating the independent bird-banding studies and commenting on drafts of this manuscript. Two anonymous referees also provided useful comments. Our appreciation is also extended to those who assisted with fieldwork: Kate Dalley, Trina Fitzgerald, Jason Glode, Pete Goulet, and Tina Leonard. We also thank Isidro and Calistro Bol for their field support and station management. Chris Templeton kindly provided recordings of black-capped chickadee calls, while tanager calls were obtained from The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (postdoctoral fellowship to JJN, Discovery grants to PDT and LMR), Queen’s University, the National Geographic Society, and the Percy Sladen Memorial Fund supported our research. All field methods used in this research complied with the current laws of Canada and Belize.

Supplementary material

265_2008_605_MOESM1_ESM.doc (67 kb)
S1 Numbers and migrant status of all migratory bird species captured during passive mist-netting or detected at playbacks black-capped chickadee mob-calls, blue-gray tanager mob-calls, static, or no sound at all in Belize, Central America (DOC 67 KB)
265_2008_605_MOESM2_ESM.doc (109 kb)
S2 Numbers of all resident bird species captured during passive mist-netting or detected at playbacks black-capped chickadee mob-calls, blue-gray tanager mob-calls, static, or no sound at all in Belize, Central America (DOC 107 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph J. Nocera
    • 1
    Email author
  • Philip D. Taylor
    • 2
  • Laurene M. Ratcliffe
    • 1
  1. 1.Biology DepartmentQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada
  2. 2.Atlantic Cooperative Wildlife Ecology Research Network, Department of BiologyAcadia UniversityWolfvilleCanada

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