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Semantics of an Avian Alarm Call System: the Male Domestic Fowl, Gallus Domesticus

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Vocal alarm signals of male domestic fowl given in the presence of predators and other ground and aerial objects were recorded and analyzed. Studies were conducted under semi-naturalistic conditions and a telemetric technique was used to facilitate high quality sound recording. Cockerels gave ground alarm calls specifically to objects moving on the substrate and aerial alarm calls to objects moving above in free space. Vocalizations were associated with both dangerous and harmless objects. We therefore investigated variation in sound structure of aerial alarm calls with reference to flying predators and non-predators. A multidimensional contingency table analysis revealed a significant tendency for qualitatively different aerial alarm calls to be associated with flying predators and non-predators. Differences in call structure were restricted to the two first units of the alarm call. We tested the hypotheses that variation in aerial alarm call structure might be affected by either the distance separating the bird from the object or the angular size of the object projected onto the retina of the cockerel. Statistical analysis showed that the angular size was a good predictor of variation of the second unit of alarm call. The distance it self was less predictive. The first unit of the alarm call was not affected by either the distance or the angular size of the object. We propose that this part of the call has a more general function of alerting the conspecific companions. We conclude that alarm vocalizations of male domestic fowl refer specifically to a certain type of stimulus object, either moving on the ground or flying. For alarm calls correlated with aerial stimuli the specific angular size of a stimulus object moving in the air is a good predictor of call structure. We suggest that this way of dealing with flying objects as stimuli for alarm calls is the result of a predator detection strategy in which the benefits of an expanded field of vision, an important adaptation for ground-dwelling birds, exceed the costs of alarming to harmless birds and other aerial objects.

Affiliations: 1: The Rockefeller University, Field Research Center, Millbrook, New York 12545, U.S.A.

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