Birds orient their heads appropriately in response to functionally referential alarm calls of heterospecifics

Francesca S.E. Dawson Pell, Dominique A. Potvin, Chaminda P. Ratnayake, Esteban Fernández-Juricic, Robert D. Magrath, Andrew N. Radford*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)
288 Downloads (Pure)


Vertebrate alarm calls signal danger and often encode graded or categorical information about predator proximity or type. In addition to allowing communication with conspecifics, alarm calls are a valuable source of information for eavesdropping heterospecifics. However, although eavesdropping has been experimentally demonstrated in over 70 species, we know little about exactly what information eavesdroppers gain from heterospecific alarm calls. Here, we investigated whether Australian magpies, Cracticus tibicen, extract relevant information about the type of threat from functionally referential alarm calls given by noisy miners, Manorina melanocephala. Miner aerial alarm calls signal a predator in flight, whereas mobbing calls signal a terrestrial or perched predator. We therefore tested if magpies gain information on the elevation of expected danger. We first confirmed, by measuring bill angles on video, that magpie head orientation changes appropriately with differences in the elevation of a conspicuous moving object. We then conducted a field experiment that measured magpie bill angle in response to playback of miner aerial and mobbing alarm calls. The maximum and mean bill angles were higher in response to aerial compared to mobbing calls, suggesting that magpies use information from miner alarms to search visually at appropriate elevations for the specific type of danger. Magpies were also vigilant for longer after aerial alarm calls that followed mobbing calls, implying perception of an escalating threat level. Our work shows that individuals can gain information on the type or location of danger from heterospecific alarm calls, which is likely to increase the effectiveness of anti-predator responses.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)109-118
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Early online date14 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018


  • alarm calls
  • communication
  • eavesdropping
  • functionally referential
  • information
  • predation
  • vigilance


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