Nesting songbirds assess spatial heterogeneity of predatory chipmunks by eavesdropping on their vocalizations

Quinn C. Emmering, Kenneth A. Schmidt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


1.Information benefits organisms living in a heterogeneous world by reducing uncertainty associated with decision making. For breeding passerines, information reliably associated with nest failure, such as predator activity, can be used to adjust breeding decisions leading to higher reproductive success. 2.Predator vocalizations may provide a source of current information for songbirds to assess spatial heterogeneity in risk that enables them to make appropriate nest-site and territory placement decisions. 3.To determine whether ground-nesting passerines eavesdrop on a common nest predator, the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), we conducted a playback experiment to create spatial heterogeneity in perceived predation risk. We established three types of playback plots broadcasting: (i) chipmunk vocalizations (increased risk), (ii) frog calls (procedural control) and (iii) no playback (silent control). We conducted point counts from plot centres to compare bird activity among treatments and measured the distance of two ground-nesting species' nests, ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) and veery (Catharus fuscescens), from playback stations. 4.Ground-nesting birds significantly reduced their activities up to 30m from plot centres in response to playbacks of chipmunk calls suggesting an adjustment of territory placement or a reduction of overt behaviours (e.g. singing frequency). In contrast, less vulnerable canopy-nesting species showed no effect across experimental plots. Correspondingly, veeries and ovenbirds nested significantly further from chipmunk playback stations relative to control stations. Interestingly, the magnitude of this response was more than twice as high in ovenbirds than in veeries. 5.Our findings indicate that some breeding passerines may eavesdrop on predator communication, providing an explanation for how some birds assess spatial heterogeneity in predation risk to make breeding site decisions. Thus, heterospecific eavesdropping may be a common feature of predator-prey interactions that allows birds to avoid nest predators in space and provide greater stability to predator-prey dynamics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1305-1312
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2011


  • Acoustic cues
  • Habitat selection
  • Interceptive eavesdropping
  • Predator avoidance
  • Public information
  • Spatial refugia


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