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


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.

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Data availability

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


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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).

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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.

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Correspondence to Christopher B. Sturdy.

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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).

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