Many vertebrates use vocalizations to communicate about the presence of predators, and some encode information about predator type or behaviour. A fast-approaching predator typically elicits a flee alarm call, prompting others to escape to safety. In a field experiment, we presented gliding models of a predatory bird to several species representing four families of passerine. All families presented with the glider gave a distinct call on at least one occasion, apart from the zebra finch, for which no specific alarm call was recorded. Following on from this unexpected result, we conducted an experiment in which we exposed captive zebra finches to video of a looming raptor. Results of the captive study showed that birds responded to the looming raptor with escape behaviour and responded to less threatening stimuli with orienting or startle behavior. Despite this anti-predator response, birds did not give any distinct alarm call, and the distance calls of both males and females did not differ in structure or rate of delivery after exposure to a stimulus. Zebra finches are one of the most studied birds in the world, are gregarious, and have a rich vocal repertoire, yet their alarm communication has not been investigated experimentally. Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that zebra finches lack a flee alarm call and appear not to signal about immediate danger through a change in calling rate.
Figure | Photos of species recorded during the field experiment. Feature image above Zebra finch (Estrildidae: Taeniopygia guttata). b Variegated fairy-wren (Maluridae: Malurus lamberti). c Splendid fairy-wren (Maluridae: Malurus splendens). d White-winged fairy-wren (Maluridae: Malurus leucopterus). e Singing honeyeater (Meliphagidae: Gavicalis virescens). f White-plumed honeyeater (Meliphagidae: Ptilotula penicillatus). gYellow-throated miner (Meliphagidae: Manorina flavigula). h Yellow-rumped thornbill (Acanthizidae: Acanthiza chrysorrhoa). i Chestnut-rumped thornbill (Acanthizidae: Acanthiza uropygialis).