Acoustic discrimination of predators by black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus)

Abstract

Smaller owls and hawks are high-threat predators to small songbirds, like chickadees, in comparison to larger avian predators due to smaller raptors’ agility (Templeton et al. in Proc Natl Acad Sci 104:5479–5482, 2005). The current literature focuses only on high- and low-threat predators. We propose that there may be a continuum in threat perception. In the current study, we conducted an operant go/no-go experiment investigating black-capped chickadees’ acoustic discrimination of predator threat. After obtaining eight hawk and eight owl species’ calls, we assigned each species as: (1) large, low-threat, (2) mid-sized, unknown-threat and (3) small-, high-threat predators, according to wingspan and body size. Black-capped chickadees were either trained to respond (‘go’) to high-threat predator calls or respond to low-threat predator calls. When either low-threat predator calls were not reinforced or high-threat predator calls were not reinforced the birds were to withhold responding (‘no-go’) to those stimuli. We then tested transfer of training with additional small and large predator calls, as well as with the calls of several mid-sized predators. We confirmed that chickadees can discriminate between high- and low-threat predator calls. We further investigated how chickadees categorize mid-sized species’ calls by assessing transfer of training to previously non-differentially reinforced (i.e., pretraining) calls. Specifically, transfer test results suggest that mid-sized broad-winged hawks were perceived to be of high threat whereas mid-sized short-eared owls were perceived to be of low threat. However, mid-sized Cooper’s hawks and northern hawk owls were not significantly differentially responded to, suggesting that they are of medium threat which supports the notion that perception of threat is along a continuum rather than distinct categories of high or low threat.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Data availability

The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

References

  1. Avey MT, Phillmore LS, MacDougall-Shackleton SA (2005) Immediate early gene expression following exposure to acoustic and visual components of courtship in zebra finches. Behav Brain Res 165:247–253

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Avey MT, Hoeschele M, Moscicki MK, Bloomfield LL, Sturdy CB (2011) Neural correlates of threat perception: neural equivalence of conspecific and heterospecific mobbing calls is learned. PLoS One 6:e23844

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bayne EM, Hobson KA (2002) Effects of red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) removal on survival of artificial songbird nests in boreal forest fragments. Am Midl Nat 147:72–80

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Blancher P (2013) Estimated number of birds killed by house cats (Felis catus) in Canada. Avian Conserv Ecol 8:3

    Google Scholar 

  5. Book DL, Freeberg TM (2015) Titmouse calling and foraging are affected by head and body orientation of cat predator models and possible experience with real cats. Anim Cogn 18:1155–1164

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Courter JR, Ritchison G (2010) Alarm calls of tufted titmice convey information about predator size and threat. Behav Ecol 21:936–942

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Griffiths R, Double MC, Orr K, Dawson RJ (1998) A DNA test to sex most birds. Mol Ecol 7:1071–1075

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Kyle SC, Freeberg TM (2016) Do Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) and tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) attend to the head or body orientation of a perched avian predator? J Comp Psychol 130:145

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Njegovan M, Hilhorst B, Ferguson S, Weisman R (1994) A motor-driven feeder for operant training in song birds. Behav Res Methods Instrum Comput 26:26–27

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Palya WL, Walter DE (2001) Document set for the high-performance experiment controller. http://www.jsu.edu/depart/psychology/sebac/Exp-Ctl.html. Retrieved 25 Oct 2014

  11. Preston CR, Beane RD (1993) Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). In: Poole A, Gill F (eds) The Birds of North America. Academy of Natural Sciences/American Ornithologists' Union, Philadelphia/Washington, DC

  12. Pyle P (1997) Identification guide to North American birds. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas

    Google Scholar 

  13. Roth II TC, Lima SL (2006) Predatory behavior and diet of wintering male Cooper's Hawks in a rural habitat. J Raptor Res 40:287–290

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Semenchuk GP (ed) (1992) The atlas of breeding birds of Alberta. Nature, Alberta

    Google Scholar 

  15. Sibley DA (2000) The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society

  16. Sieving KE, Hetrick SA, Avery ML (2010) The versatility of graded acoustic measures in classification of predation threats by the tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor: exploring a mixed framework for threat communication. Oikos 119:264–276

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Smith SM (1991) The black-capped chickadee: Behavioral ecology and the natural history. Cornell University Press, Ithaca

    Google Scholar 

  18. Soard CM, Ritchison G (2009) ‘Chick-a-dee’ calls of Carolina chickadees convey information about degree of threat posed by avian predators. Anim Behav 78:1447–1453

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Sturdy CB, Weisman RG (2006) Rationale and methodology for testing auditory cognition in songbirds. Behav Proc 72:265–272

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Suzuki TN (2012) Long-distance calling by the willow tit, Poecile montanus, facilitates formation of mixed-species foraging flocks. Ethology 118:10–16

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Templeton CN, Greene E (2007) Nuthatches eavesdrop on variations in heterospecific chickadee mobbing alarm calls. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104:5479–5482

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Templeton CN, Greene E, Davis K (2005) Allometry of alarm calls: black-capped chickadees encode information about predator size. Science 308:1934–1937

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Weisman RG, Ratcliffe L (2004) Relative pitch and the song of black-capped chickadees. Am Sci 92:532–539

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Alyshia M. M. Skurdal and Raphael Q. Gastrock, the research assistants who supervised our operant chambers throughout the length of the experiment. In addition, Alyshia M. M. Skurdal assisted with determining Edmonton-native species and the threat level according to wingspan of each species. We thank Isaac Lank and Al Denington for their technical assistance in the chickadee operant chambers. All animal studies were conducted in accordance with the Canadian Council on Animal Care Guidelines and Policies and with approval from the Animal Care and Use Committee for Biosciences for the University of Alberta, and the University of Calgary Life and Environmental Sciences Animal Care Committee. Chickadees were captured and research was carried out under an Environment Canada Canadian Wildlife Service Scientific permit, Alberta Fish and Wildlife Capture and Research permits, and City of Edmonton Parks Permit. This research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) (Grant Nos. 249884 and 412311) Discovery Grant and Discovery Accelerator Supplement, an Alberta Ingenuity Fund (AIF) New Faculty Grant, a Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) New Opportunities Fund (NOF) and Infrastructure Operating Fund (IOF) grants along with start-up funding and CFI partner funding from the University of Alberta (UofA) to CBS. JVC and KAC were each supported by an Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship-Doctoral (NSERC CGS D).

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

Experiments conceived and designed: JVC, AHH, and CBS. Collected stimuli: DAY. Stimuli selection: JVC and KAC. Collected data: JVC, KAC, and ENS. Analyzed data: JVC, KAC, and AHH. Drafted paper: JVC and AHH. Revised paper: JVC, AHH, KAC, ENS, DAY, EMB, and CBS.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christopher B. Sturdy.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Congdon, J.V., Hahn, A.H., Campbell, K.A. et al. Acoustic discrimination of predators by black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). Anim Cogn 23, 595–611 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-020-01364-5

Download citation

Keywords

  • Threat perception
  • Predator perception
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Operant conditioning