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Dynamic changes in alarm call structure: a strategy for reducing conspicuousness to avian predators?

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The design of many animal signals reflects the need to maximize signal efficacy while minimizing conspicuousness to eavesdroppers. The aerial alarm calls of birds have been a useful model system for exploring such evolutionary tradeoffs at the level of general call structure, but much less is known about changes in fine-scale signal characteristics over the course of an encounter with a potential predator. We analyzed variation in the alarm calls that male fowl, Gallus gallus, produced in response to raptor silhouettes moving overhead. Spectrogram cross-correlation was used to test for changes in structure over the course of a call bout. This analysis revealed that aerial alarm calls are individually distinctive and that they vary significantly from the first call to the second. We then measured single acoustic parameters, including the duration, dominant frequency and frequency bandwidth of each component in successive calls. Males almost invariably began the first call in a bout with a high amplitude broad-band pulse, which was followed by a much longer and highly variable sustained element. They then selectively reduced or eliminated the introductory pulse, while leaving other aspects of alarm structure unchanged. Recent work has shown that the introductory pulse is potentially costly because it has attributes that are readily localized by raptors. We suggest that male fowl have adaptive plasticity in alarm call structure, allowing them to manage short-term predation risk while continuing to signal to companions.


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