Selective selfishness in alarm calling behaviour by some members of wintering mixed-species groups of crested tits and willow tits


Animals adjust their use of alarm calls depending on social environments. We tested whether dominant (adult) and subordinate (juvenile non-kin) male crested tits (Lophophanes cristatus) warn each other and heterospecific willow tits (Poecile montanus) across the wintering season. Birds rarely alarm called when feeding alone. Both adult and juvenile crested tits warned each other in early winter, and adults did so in the middle of wintering season. However, juvenile males rarely warned conspecific adult males in the middle of the winter. Both adult and juvenile males stopped giving alarm calls when feeding together at the end of wintering season. The results suggest that the mid-winter reduction of juvenile alarms could increase the likelihood of successful predator attacks on adults, increasing the chances for juveniles to replace adults and acquire their territories. By contrast, both adult and juvenile males produced alarm calls throughout the season when foraging together with willow tits. Whether juvenile male crested tits could be selectively altering alarm call propensity to endanger adult males, thereby selfishly enhancing their own succession to territory ownership, is discussed. The results add to the understanding of the origin of mixed-species groups and explain the dynamics of social communication. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Mixed-species groups and aggregations: shaping ecological and behavioural patterns and processes’.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences