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Many signals that animals make seem to impose on the signalers costs that are overly damaging. A classic example is noisy begging by nestling songbirds when a parent returns to the nest with food. These loud cheeps and peeps might give the location of the nest away to a listening hawk or raccoon, resulting in the death of the defenseless nestlings. In fact, when tapes of begging tree swallows were played at an artificial swallow nest containing an egg, the egg in that “noisy” nest was taken or destroyed by predators before the egg in a nearby quiet nest in 29 of 37 trials.
Further evidence for the costs of begging comes from a study of differences in the begging calls of warbler species that nest on the ground versus those that nest in the relative safety of trees. The young of groundnesting warblers produce begging cheeps of higher frequencies than do their treenesting relatives. These higher
frequency sounds do not travel as far, and so may better conceal the individuals producing them, who are especially vulnerable to predators in their ground nests. David Haskell created artificial nests with clay eggs and placed them on the ground beside a tape recorder that played the begging calls of either treenesting or of groundnesting warblers. The eggs “advertised” by the treenesters' begging calls were found bitten significantly more often than the eggs associated with the groundnesters' calls.
The hypothesis that begging calls have evolved properties that reduce their potential for attracting predators yields a prediction: baby birds of species that experience high rates of nest predation should produce softer begging signals of higher frequency than nestlings of other species less often victimized by nest predators. This prediction was supported by data collected in one survey of 24 species from an Arizona forest, more evidence that predator pressure favors the evolution of begging calls that are hard to detect and pinpoint.
Given that predators can make it costly to beg for food, what benefit do begging nestlings derive from their communications? One possibility is that a noisy baby bird provides accurate signals of its real hunger and good health, making it worthwhile for the listening parent to give it food in a nest where several other offspring are usually available to be fed. If this hypothesis is true, then it follows that nestlings should adjust the intensity of their signals in relation to the signals produced by their nestmates, who are competing for parental attention. When experimentally deprived baby robins are placed in a nest with normally fed siblings...
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- Fall '13