Skip to main content

Wild great tits’ alarm calls prompt vigilant behaviours in free-range chickens


The ability to use heterospecific alarm calls is adaptive in the wild, as it provides an opportunity to avoid predators. We now know that several species are able to respond to alarm calls intended for others. However, this capacity has never been investigated in domestic animals. The capacity to use heterospecific alarm calls may be relevant for free-range domestic species, especially when they share predators with wild signallers. Using playback experiments, we investigated the vigilance behaviour of free-range naked neck chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) when confronted with alarm calls (test playbacks) and songs (control playbacks) of a commonly occurring wild passerine, the great tit (Parus major). We found that subjects exhibited an increased vigilance to alarm calls compared to songs, therefore, showing that chickens respond to heterospecific signals as wild birds do. Recently, there has been an increased interest for free-range poultry production, notably because of the benefits of this farming method for chicken welfare. Although future studies are required to address this question, mortality due to predation may be reduced through the implementation of structures in areas frequented by wild heterospecific signallers.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Data availability

The raw data is available as a Supplemental File.


  1. Carlson NV, Healy SD, Templeton CN (2019) Wild fledgling tits do not mob in response to conspecific or heterospecific mobbing calls. Ibis.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Curio E, Regelmann K (1985) The behavioural dynamics of great tits (Parus major) approaching a predator. Z Tierpsychol 69:3–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Dutour M, Lena JP, Lengagne T (2016) Mobbing behaviour varies according to predator dangerousness and occurrence. Anim Behav 119:119–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Dutour M, Léna JP, Lengagne T (2017) Mobbing calls: a signal transcending species boundaries. Anim Behav 131:3–11.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Dutour M, Lengagne T, Léna JP (2019a) Syntax manipulation changes perception of mobbing call sequences across passerine species. Ethology 125:635–644.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Dutour M, Léna JP, Dumet A, Gardette V, Mondy N, Lengagne T (2019b) The role of associative learning process on the response of fledgling great tits (Parus major) to mobbing calls. Anim Cogn 17:1–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Dutour M, Walsh SL, Ridley AR (2020) Australian magpies adjust their alarm calls according to predator distance. Bioacoustics.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Evans CS, Evans L, Marler P (1993) On the meaning of alarm calls: functional reference in an avian vocal system. Anim Behav 46:23–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Ferreira VHB, Barbarat M, Lormant F, Germain K, Brachet M, Løvlie H, Calandreau L, Guesdon V (2020) Social motivation and the use of distal, but not local, featural cues are related to ranging behavior in free-range chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus). Anim Cogn.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Held S, Cooper JJ, Mendl MT (2009) Advances in the study of cognition, behavioral priorities and emotions. In: Marchant- Forde JN (ed) The welfare of pigs. Springer, Netherlands, pp 47–94

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  11. Jiang X, Zhang C, Liu J, Liang W (2020) Female cuckoo calls elicit vigilance and escape responses from wild free-range chickens. Ethol Ecol Evol.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Kalb N, Randler C (2019) Behavioral responses to conspecific mobbing calls are predator-specific in great tits (Parus major). Ecol Evol 9:9207–9213.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. Kalb N, Anger F, Randler C (2019) Subtle variations in mobbing calls are predator-specific in great tits (Parus major). Sci Rep 9:1–7.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Kroodsma DE, Byers BE, Goodale E, Johnson S, Liu WC (2001) Pseudoreplication in playback experiments, revisited a decade later. Anim Behav 61:1029–1033.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Leavesley AJ, Magrath RD (2005) Communicating about danger: urgency alarm calling in a bird. Anim Behav 70:365–373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Magrath RD, Haff TM, Fallow PM, Radford AN (2015a) Eavesdropping on heterospecific alarm calls: from mechanisms to consequences. Biol Rev 90:560–586.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Magrath RD, Haff TM, McLachlan JR, Igic B (2015b) Wild birds learn to eavesdrop on heterospecific alarm calls. Curr Biol 25:2047–2050.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Marino L (2017) Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken. Anim Cogn 20:127–147.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  19. R Core Team (2018) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. Accessed 2018

  20. Randler C, Vollmer C (2013) Asymmetries in commitment in an avian communication network. Naturwissenschaften 100:199–203.

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Silvestri AJ, Morgan K, Ridley AR (2019) The association between evidence of a predator threat and responsiveness to alarm calls in Western Australian magpies (Cracticus tibicen dorsalis). PeerJ 7:e7572.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  22. Stadig LM, Rodenburg TB, Ampe B, Reubens B, Tuyttens FA (2017) Effect of free-range access, shelter type and weather conditions on free-range use and welfare of slow-growing broiler chickens. Appl Anim Behav Sci 192:15–23

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Stahl P, Ruette S, Gros L (2002) Predation on free-ranging poultry by mammalian and avian predators: field loss estimates in a French rural area. Mammal Rev 32:227–234

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Suzuki TN (2011) Parental alarm calls warn nestlings about different predatory threats. Curr Biol 21:15–16.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Väisänen J, Lindqvist C, Jensen P (2005) Co-segregation of behaviour and production related traits in an F3 intercross between red junglefowl and White Leghorn laying hens. Br Poult Sci 46:156–158.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Wheatcroft D (2015) Repetition rate of calls used in multiple contexts communicates presence of predators to nestlings and adult birds. Anim Behav 103:35–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We are grateful to Blandine Dutour for permission to conduct this study at her farm as well as for providing the accommodation. We also thank three research assistants for helping in data collection. We thank Sarah Walsh and Dora Biro for helpful comments and English language checking. We also thank Kazuhiro Goto and 2 anonymous referees for their comments.


This work was supported by grant from the FYSSEN Foundation (to SD).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mylène Dutour.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors. All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. The farmer was responsible for all animal husbandry and care. All subjects returned to foraging activity very quickly (mean ± se: 8.55 ± 2.17 s) following playbacks.

Consent to participate

Not applicable.

Consent for publication

Not applicable.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

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

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary file1 (XLSX 10 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Dutour, M., Danel, S. Wild great tits’ alarm calls prompt vigilant behaviours in free-range chickens. Anim Cogn 24, 213–216 (2021).

Download citation


  • Alarm call
  • Anti-predator behaviour
  • Birds
  • Free range
  • Gallus gallus domesticus
  • Heterospecific call