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Hot off the Press: Chickadees Cry Fowl

by Andre on 25 June 2005

Phil mentioned communicating with animals in the comments section of Questions for the Future, so it’s a nice coincidence that the latest issue of Science has an article on chickadee calls.*

Chickadees are small birds, but they are social and they work together to fight predators. This behaviour, called mobbing, is observed in many species of birds but only rarely involves contact. If that’s the case, there’s little actual risk to the target and there would be quite an advantage for a fearless predatory bird that could just wait to be served an angry buffet, mob-style. I’m getting side-tracked…

The study found that not only to the chickadees use vocalizations to coordinate this behaviour, they actually have different calls for different predators. The authors speculate that the different messages (involving more or less “dees” in the characteristic chick-a-dee call) convey the risk level posed by the predator to other birds.


“The work … shows us that even very common species that we may take for granted have evolved to have very elaborate and exacting systems of communication,” says James Hare, who studies ground squirrel alarm calls at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Historically, researchers have thought alarm calls signaled information about either the type of predator or the degree of threat, says Daniel Blumstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies marmot communication. The new study helps break down this “false dichotomy” by showing that chickadee calls tell of both, Blumstein says.

which is cool.

*It’s not exactly communication between humans and animals, but the researchers could get the birds to respond to recordings of previous vocalizations.

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