Nestling barn owls assess short-term variation in the amount of vocally competing siblings

Ruppli, Charlène ; Dreiss, Amélie ; Roulin, Alexandre

In: Animal Cognition, 2013, vol. 16, no. 6, p. 993-1000

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    Assessing the amount of rivals is crucial to optimally adjust investment into a contest. If laboratory animals show numerical abilities, little is known about the ecological implications particularly in young animals. The two to nine barn owl (Tyto alba) siblings vocally compete for priority of access to food resources before parents actually deliver them. In dyads, the individual that vocalizes at the highest rate in the absence of parents deters its siblings from competing for next delivered prey. We tested the novel hypothesis that to optimally adjust vocal investment, barn owl nestlings assess how many of their siblings are currently competing. To singleton owlets, we broadcasted a fixed global number of calls emitted by one, two or four pre-recorded unfamiliar nestlings. We could thus distinguish the independent effect on singletons' vocal behavior of the global number of calls produced by a brood from the number of competitors that produced these calls. Overall, nestlings retreated more from vocal contest when facing more competitors. However, in front of one highly motivated competitor, nestlings refrained from vocalizing to a larger extent than when competing against more but less motivated individuals. Therefore, young animals assess variation in the number of currently competing siblings based on individual-specific vocal cues