Magazine article Science News

Dee for Danger: Chickadees Add Notes as Threat Grows

Magazine article Science News

Dee for Danger: Chickadees Add Notes as Threat Grows

Article excerpt

Biologists report new progress in translating the sophisticated communication system of black-capped chickadees.

When the little birds spot a lurking predator, they burst out with variations on their "chickadee" calls. Tests with 15 predator species show that birds vary those calls depending on how dangerous the predator is, says Christopher N. Templeton of the University of Washington in Seattle. For example, the greater the danger, the more dee syllables the birds tend to add at the end of "chicka." Recordings of these varied alarm calls inspired appropriately mild or intense responses in a chickadee flock, the researchers report in the June 24 Science.

Alarm calls have provided a valuable model system for scientists decoding animal communication. The only previous experimental study of specific information in bird alarm calls found that chickens cluck warnings for danger from above that differ from warnings for danger on the ground. Templeton says that in the recent test, he at first showed a stuffed hawk to chickadees in an outdoor aviary, but they were only once fooled into voicing alarm calls. Subsequently, he had to borrow live raptors from a bird-rehabilitation center.

Chickadees that spot an approaching predator rapidly give high-pitched "seet" calls and flee. For stationary predators, chickadees voice variations on "chickadee" and mob together to harass the menace. Templeton staged the appearance of stationary predators, including various raptors, a cat, and a ferret. Among the raptors, the greatest dangers to chickadees come from small species such as the coffee cup-size pygmy owls. …

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