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Functional reference in an alarm signal given during nest defence: seet calls of yellow warblers denote brood-parasitic brown-headed cowbirds

Abstract

Field observations and model-presentation experiments have shown that yellow warblers (Dendroica petechia) produce “seet” calls preferentially in response to brood-parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). In this study, we investigated whether seet calls are functionally referential alarm calls denoting cowbirds by determining whether female warblers responded appropriately to seet calls in the absence of a cowbird, whether alarm calling by warblers varied with response urgency, and how warblers in a population allopatric with cowbirds responded to cowbird and avian predator models and seet playbacks. As a control, we presented “chip” calls, which are elicited by nest predators as well as by non-threatening intruders, but are not strongly associated with cowbirds. Yellow warblers responded differently to playbacks of seet than chip calls. To seet playbacks, almost 60% of females gave seet calls and rushed to sit in their nests, responses typically elicited by cowbirds, whereas these responses were given infrequently in response to chip calls. Yellow warblers seet called equally in situations that simulated low, medium and high risk of parasitism, which suggests that these calls did not vary with response urgency. In a population allopatric with cowbirds, seet calls were rarely produced in response to cowbird or avian nest predator models and never to seet playbacks. These results suggest that seet calls are functionally referential signals denoting cowbirds and that cowbird parasitism was a strong selective pressure in the evolution of functional referentiality in the seet call of yellow warblers.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Portage Country Club for permission to work on their property, and the staff of the Delta Marsh Field Station (University of Manitoba) and Churchill Northern Studies Centre for logistical support during the fieldwork. K. Caldwell and D.G. McMaster were instrumental in the field. Constructive comments were made by J.F. Hare, W.A. Searcy, M.J. Vonhof and two anonymous reviewers. This study was supported by scholarships and grants from NSERC, Faculty of Science (University of Manitoba), Frank M. Chapman Memorial Fund (American Museum of Natural History), and Northern Studies Training Program to S.A.G., and by a NSERC grant (A9556) to S.G.S.. Our research was conducted with the approval of the Canadian Council on Animal Care.

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Correspondence to Sharon A. Gill.

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Communicated by W.A. Searcy

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Gill, S.A., Sealy, S.G. Functional reference in an alarm signal given during nest defence: seet calls of yellow warblers denote brood-parasitic brown-headed cowbirds. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 56, 71–80 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-003-0736-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-003-0736-7

Keywords

  • Alarm calls
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Evolution
  • Functional reference
  • Yellow warbler