Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Great Tit nestlings respond adaptively to different antipredator alarm calls

ResearchBlogging.orgYoung birds are vulnerable. While they are still in the nest they can easily fall prey to cats, snakes or predatory birds, and once they leave it they are still naive and clumsy and they can also be easy prey. Parents, however, can help: they are experienced and know what other animals represent a risk, and they could make a difference by communicating this to their young offspring by using alarm calls. In a recent paper Toshitaka Suzuki showed how Great Tits (above, a fledgling) produce different alarm calls depending of which predator approaches their nest, and how, crucially, nestlings use this information to behave in the most effective way to avoid predation. The main predators for Great Tits in Japan are the Japanese Rat Snake species and the Jungle Crow. Snakes fit into the cavities Great Tits use and can then kill the chicks, while crows can only snatch chicks approaching the nest entrance. Suzuki presented nesting Great Tits with either a stuffed jungle crow (11 nests) or a live snake (10 nests) in a transparent plastic box, and the parents readily responded to the predators with repeated alarm calls.
In response to a crow, they continually gave ‘chicka’ alarm calls that were composed of several different types of syllables, but these calls were rarely produced in the snake trials. Instead, when detecting a snake, parents produced ‘jar’ alarm calls that were composed of harsh syllables. Such ‘jar’ alarm calls were repeatedly given in response to the snake, but were never uttered for the crow.
He recorded the nestlings responses to the parents' alarm call using video cameras set inside the nest. When the nestlings heard the 'chicka' call, they crouched inside the nest, making less likely that a crow would be able to reach them from the entrance hole. In contrast, upon hearing the 'jar' call, all nestlings in the 10 nests tested with the snake jumped hurriedly out of the nest. Snakes can easily enter the nest, so early fledgling is the only chance of escape. The parents took care of the early fledged nestlings as normal for fledglings. Although early fledgling can mean lower chances of survival, it is a better option to an almost certain death when a snake enters the nest.
This study shows that parent offspring communication can be quite nuanced, and hints at how little we still understand important aspects of the behaviour of common bird species.

Suzuki TN (2011). Parental alarm calls warn nestlings about different predatory threats. Current biology : CB, 21 (1) PMID: 21215927

Monday, 28 November 2011

Woodpigeons and Holly

 There is a mature holly on a street in my way to work. It's leaves don't have any thorns and it is a very lush female specimen. A few weeks ago it was an impressive sight, laden with bright berries. All through October and November, it has been visited by Woodpigeons, balancing precariously and gorging themselves on the berries.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Planes and goldfinches

This morning coming into work I heard the unmistakable chirps of squabbling goldfinches. There was a large flock feeding on a line of plane trees. While I climbed the stairs I thought delightedly that the window in our lab overlooks the trees, so I could have a level view of the feeding goldfinches. There they were, hanging from the bauble-like seed balls or balancing from the thin stems holding them. London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolia) is an important food resource for goldfinches, as it provides seeds during the autumn months into the winter. The photos didn't come brilliant - I blame the dirty windows - but I think the one on top captures the atmosphere of the feeding flock. I count seven, how many can you see?

More information
Sachslehner, L. M. (1998): The significance of Plane-trees Platanus x hispanica M. as a food resource for Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis L. in Vienna. Egretta 41: 90-101.