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Playing it by ear: gregarious sparrows recognize and respond to isolated wingbeat sounds and predator-based cues


The ability to detect an incoming attack provides a final opportunity for an animal to avoid predation. In birds, vision is the main sensory mode in detecting attacks, but auditory cues likely play an important role. The role of auditory cues from predators themselves remains largely unstudied. We evaluated the ability of free-living, gregarious sparrows (Passerellidae) to recognize attacks based on the non-vocal sounds made by predators or indirect auditory cues of ongoing attacks, mainly in the form of brief wingbeat sequences from predatory and non-predatory birds. Behavioral responses to playbacks were video-recorded and expressed in terms of a flock’s propensity to respond, either by flushing to cover, becoming vigilant, or both. Sparrows responded equally to hawk wingbeats and those of small passerines. Both predator and non-predator wingbeat sequences induced anti-predator responses, especially when played loudly. Loud control sounds, such as hammering, induced few responses. Birds also responded to the sounds of a walking and running terrestrial predator (a dog), but reactions to the walking predator often involved birds jumping onto objects for a better view of their surroundings rather than immediate flight to cover. In an additional experiment, we examined how characteristics of wingbeat sequences (i.e., the number and cadence of hawk wingbeats) affected passerine responses. It indicated that only two consecutive hawk wingbeats, presented at a natural cadence, are necessary to elicit a strong response to a playback. Single hawk wingbeats induced only weak escape responses, as did artificially slowed cadences. Birds in general likely possess the ability to recognize non-vocal, auditory cues of incoming attacks, which may be produced by approaching threats or departing congeners.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are openly available in Illinois Data Bank (


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This research was supported by the Indiana State University College of Graduate and Professional Studies and the Department of Biology. Steven L. Lima played a crucial role in the conceptualization, methodology, and administration of this research. We thank P. Scott, D. Hews, and S. Lima for permission to use their property for a study site. We thank D. Garvin and D. Bensinger for access to their trained falconry hawks and T. Divoll for the use of his cooperative dog. K. Murphy and J. Lucas provided valuable advice and assistance with sound recording equipment and analyses. J. Smith produced our Figure 1 experimental design schematic. J. O’Keefe, W. Mitchell, S. Lima, and three anonymous reviewers provided useful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.


Indiana State University College of Graduate and Professional Studies.

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DJS: conceptualization, data curation, investigation, methodology, project administration, writing—original draft, writing—review and editing. EAB: formal analysis, visualization, writing—original draft, writing—review and editing.

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Correspondence to David J. Shearer.

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Shearer, D.J., Beilke, E.A. Playing it by ear: gregarious sparrows recognize and respond to isolated wingbeat sounds and predator-based cues. Anim Cogn (2022).

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  • Vigilance
  • Playbacks
  • Auditory detection
  • Predator detection
  • Predator–prey interaction
  • Antipredator behavior