Bird calls: Just emotional displays or something more?

Peter Makler*, Christopher Evans

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    53 Citations (Scopus)


    Two widely held assumptions about the sounds of birds and other animals are (1) they are impulsive and involuntary, and cannot be controlled, and (2) they are based only on emotion, apparently because the stimuli eliciting them are thought to be very generalized. The validity of these assumptions has been tested in studies of the alarm calling and food calling behavior of domestic chickens. Videotapes of aerial and ground predators - a hawk overhead and a raccoon on the ground - were effective in eliciting the two major classes of alarm calls. The frequency of aerial alarm calling was strongly affected by presence or absence of a companion, while other aspects of antipredator behavior were unchanged. This so-called "audience effect" on calling is not found with the ground predator call, apparently because this call is addressed to the predator as well as companions. The rules for audience effects are different again with food calling. Evidently calling is not completely impulsive, but can be controlled. By varying the attributes of digitized video images of predators we have shown that stimuli eliciting the aerial predator alarm call are quite specific, encoding different information than the ground predator call. Playback experiments demonstrate that another chicken can decode this information, and react adaptively. Although emotion is undoubtedly involved in bird calling, we conclude that simple emotion-based models of bird calls are inadequate as the sole basis for explaining the vocal behavior of birds.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)26-33
    Number of pages8
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 1996


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