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Title: Eavesdropping on Referential Yellow Warbler Alarm Calls by Red-Winged Blackbirds Is Mediated by Brood Parasitism Risk
Referential alarm calls that denote specific types of dangers are common across diverse vertebrate lineages. Different alarm calls can indicate a variety of threats, which often require specific actions to evade. Thus, to benefit from the call, listeners of referential alarm calls must be able to decode the signaled threat and respond to it in an appropriate manner. Yellow warblers ( Setophaga petechia ) produce referential “seet” calls that signal to conspecifics the presence of nearby obligate brood parasitic brown-headed cowbirds ( Molothrus ater ), which lay their eggs in the nests of other species, including yellow warblers. Our previous playback experiments have found that red-winged blackbirds ( Agelaius phoeniceus ), a species also parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, eavesdrop upon and respond strongly to yellow warbler seet calls during the incubation stage of breeding with aggression similar to responses to both cowbird chatters and predator calls. To assess whether red-winged blackbird responses to seet calls vary with their own risk of brood parasitism, we presented the same playbacks during the nestling stage of breeding (when the risk of brood parasitism is lower than during incubation). As predicted, we found that blackbirds mediated their aggression toward both cowbird chatter calls and the warblers’ anti-parasitic referential alarm calls in parallel with the low current risk of brood parasitism during the nestling stage. These results further support that red-winged blackbirds flexibly respond to yellow warbler antiparasitic referential calls as a frontline defense against brood parasitism at their own nests.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
1953226 1952726
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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  2. Abstract

    Defending offspring incurs temporal and energetic costs and can be dangerous for the parents. Accordingly, the intensity of this costly behavior should reflect the perceived risk to the reproductive output. When facing costly brood parasitism by brown‐headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), where cowbirds lay eggs in heterospecific nests and cause the hosts to care for their young, yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia) use referential “seet” calls to warn their mates of the parasitic danger. Yellow warblers of both sexes produce this call only in response to cowbirds or seet‐calling conspecifics. Seet calls are mainly produced during the laying and incubation stages of breeding, when risk of brood parasitism is highest, rather than during the nestling stage. On the other hand, general alarm calls (chips) are produced throughout the nesting cycle and are also used in conspecific interactions unrelated to nesting. We hypothesized that context shapes responses prior to breeding as well, such that yellow warblers without a mate and active nest would be less likely to respond to playbacks that simulate brood parasitism risk. To test this hypothesis, we presented playbacks of two nest threats, cowbirds (brood parasite) and blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata; nest predator), on territories of unmated male warblers (unpaired) and male warblers with a known mate (paired). We found that unpaired males were unresponsive toward playbacks indicating nest threats, whereas paired males were significantly more aggressive and vocal toward these playbacks compared to control playbacks. However, both paired and unpaired males were vocally responsive toward chip calls, which are informative for males regardless of pairing status. Male yellow warblers appear to adjust their responses during the earliest stages of breeding depending on the contextual relevance of specific threat stimuli, and together with prior studies, our work further supports that referential seet calls are associated with stage‐specific risk of brood parasitism.

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