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Inspection of mob-calls as sources of predator information: response of migrant and resident birds in the Neotropics

Nocera, Joseph J., Taylor, Philip D., Ratcliffe, Laurene M.
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2008 v.62 no.11 pp. 1769-1777
Poecile atricapillus, Thraupidae, birds, breeding sites, information sources, mortality, overwintering, predators, risk, spring, tropics, Belize
Migrating animals face numerous mortality risks, such as novel predators with which they may not be accustomed. Most animals can recognize predators innately; however, additional predator information can be collected to enhance familiarity. Because migrating birds rarely participate in mobs, they may seek alternative information sources such as cues provided by other birds that can provide information on predator location, identity, and degree of threat. We predicted that Nearctic-Neotropical migrants (hereafter, “migrants”) would react to vocal antipredator cues (e.g., mob-calls) of species residing in areas through which they migrate. To test this, we conducted experiments in Belize during spring migration, using playbacks of mob-calls of black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and blue-gray tanagers (Thraupis episcopus); tanagers are familiar to all birds in Belize; chickadees are novel to residents but familiar to migrants. This also allowed us to assess response to novel and out-of-context antipredator signals. Resident birds did not respond to novel chickadee mob-calls, but did respond to familiar tanager calls. Birds overwintering south of our study area, which were migrating during our study, responded most strongly to chickadee playbacks. Conversely, individuals of species that include our study area in their winter range did not respond to either playback. This is the first evidence that birds react to vocal antipredator cues during migration, which may be a strategy used by migrants to learn about predators. Although residents failed to recognize a foreign cue, migrating birds responded most strongly to the out-of-context chickadee cue, associated with breeding grounds >2,000 km northward.