Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 70, Issue 1, pp 171–178 | Cite as

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) differentiate between common cuckoo and sparrowhawk in China: alarm calls convey information on threat

  • Jiangping Yu
  • Longwu Wang
  • Xiaoying Xing
  • Canchao Yang
  • Jianhua Ma
  • Anders Pape Møller
  • Haitao Wang
  • Wei Liang
Original Article


Morphological mimicry of sparrowhawks Accipiter spp. by cuckoos acts to deceive hosts and thus promotes parasitism by cuckoos. Recent studies have suggested that common hosts are able to identify parasites and make special alarm calls as the result of co-evolution between hosts and brood parasites. Previous studies showed that barn swallows Hirundo rustica could distinguish between common cuckoo Cuculus canorus and sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus in Denmark, but seemed unable to make this distinction in China. However, these previous studies did not investigate vocal responses in terms of alarm calls. We tested whether barn swallows, which are regular hosts of the common cuckoo in China, could distinguish between the common cuckoo and sparrowhawk in China. In Heilongjiang, in the presence of the cuckoo and, in Hainan, in its absence, we used dummies of common cuckoo, sparrowhawk, and Oriental turtle dove Streptopelia orientalis (neutral control) to induce and record alarm calls that were used to estimate response to playbacks. Barn swallows responded more strongly to playbacks of swallow hawk alarm calls than in response to swallow cuckoo or swallow dove alarm calls. Given that alarm calls conveyed information about the presence of potential threats, our study showed that barn swallows from both study regions in China were able to distinguish between common cuckoo and sparrowhawk and respond accordingly in their vocal behavior.


Accipiter virgatus Alarm call playback Barn swallow Brood parasitism Cuculus canorus 



We would like to thank Prof. Manuel Soler and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive and helpful comments on our manuscript. We are grateful to Wenfeng Wang from the Zhalong National Nature Reserve and to Tongping Su and Yiping Hu for their assistance in fieldwork. We also thank the Baomeiling Nature Reserve, Changjiang, Hainan, and the Zhalong National Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang, for their support and permission to carry out this study. This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31272331 to HW, 31272328 and 31472013 to WL, and 31260514 to CY) and the Program for New Century Excellent Talents in University (NCET-13-0761 to CY).

Compliance with ethical standards

The experiments comply with the current laws of China, where they were performed. Fieldwork was carried out under the permission from Zhalong National Nature Reserves and Baomeiling Nature Reserve, China. Experimental procedures were in agreement with the Animal Research Ethics Committee of Hainan Provincial Education Centre for Ecology and Environment, Hainan Normal University.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jiangping Yu
    • 1
  • Longwu Wang
    • 2
    • 3
  • Xiaoying Xing
    • 4
  • Canchao Yang
    • 2
  • Jianhua Ma
    • 5
  • Anders Pape Møller
    • 6
  • Haitao Wang
    • 1
  • Wei Liang
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Life Sciences, Jilin Provincial Key Laboratory of Animal Resource Conservation and UtilizationNortheast Normal UniversityChangchunChina
  2. 2.Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Tropical Animal and Plant Ecology, College of Life SciencesHainan Normal UniversityHaikouChina
  3. 3.School of Life SciencesGuizhou Normal UniversityGuiyangChina
  4. 4.College of Wildlife ResourceNortheast Forestry UniversityHarbinChina
  5. 5.Zhalong National Nature ReserveQiqiharChina
  6. 6.Laboratoire d’Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution, CNRS UMR 8079Université Paris-SudOrsay CedexFrance

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