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Nuthatches Alert to Chickadee Warning Calls

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A study finds that chickadee alarm calls are being understood by an entirely different breed of bird — the red-breasted nuthatch. Chris Templeton of the University of Washington says it makes sense that the two species would share a warning system, since both are vulnerable to the same predators.


News now from the world of ornithology. Scientists believe that they have found a breed of bird that can understand a foreign language, a bird foreign language.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

MONTAGNE: That's a chickadee call. It's a warning of a nearby predator. According to a study conducted by Chris Templeton of the University of Washington, chickadee alarm calls are being understood by an entirely different breed of bird.

Mr. CHRIS TEMPLETON (Student, University of Washington): What we discovered was that red-breasted nuthatches not only recognize these alarm calls but they're able to discriminate among really subtle variations of these chickadee alarm calls.


Variations that indicate the relative threat posed by a predatory bird, a raptor.

Mr. TEMPLETON: Chickadees have two very different types of alarm calls. They have what's called a high seat call, which is just a high-pitched sort of thing that they use when a raptor flies overhead. When they encounter a perched raptor or a terrestrial predator, they make a chickadee-dee-dee call.

INSKEEP: A sound familiar to many backyard bird watchers, and one, says Templeton, that the red-breasted nuthatches can also use to determine the seriousness of a predatory threat simply by paying attention to the number of dee sounds.

Mr. TEMPLETON: The number of dee notes reflects the danger or the size of the predator. So small, really dangerous predators get lots of dee notes. Large predators that aren't so dangerous get few dee notes.

MONTAGNE: Chris Templeton adds that nuthatches' ability to understand chickadee language makes sense.

Mr. TEMPLETON: Chickadees and nuthatches are found together throughout most of the country. And in fact, they actually form winter flocks together. They're both small little tiny birds and so they share the vast majority of their predators.

INSKEEP: Which is why it makes sense for nuthatches to eavesdrop on those chickadee alarm calls.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

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