During the first few weeks of life, wader chicks rely upon their parents to take them to good feeding spots and to look out for potential predators. These youngsters will need to come when called and to freeze or hide when a crow flies over or a fox is on the prowl. A wader chick communicates with its parents too, so that they know where it is and can be alert to distress, but are there more subtle messages being communicated and why do male and female chicks produce discernibly different calls?
Kristal Kostoglou has been listening to the chicks of Red-capped Plovers and Southern Masked Lapwings in Australia and analysing recordings of their calls. Her research is presented in a 2022 paper in Ibis.
Anyone who studies breeding waders will be aware that parents get very anxious if a chick that is being ringed and measured starts making alarm calls – but how many people have recorded those calls? As Kristal Kostoglou says in the abstract of the paper she has written with her coauthors “We opportunistically recorded calls of chicks while they were in the hand and analysed the calls to determine whether call structure is related to sex or body mass (a proxy for age)”. The results are fascinating.
At the start of the paper, there’s a useful summary of previous studies of the calls made by chicks. It is believed that developmental changes in chick vocalisations can allow parents to assess chick age and/or condition, with evidence that calls get deeper (frequency drops) as chicks get larger. There have been a couple of previous wader studies, relating to Pied Avocet and Eurasian Stone-curlew. In the Ibis paper, Kristal Kostoglou investigated potential relationships of call traits to body mass and sex in chicks of two shorebird species; Red-capped Plover and Southern Masked Lapwing.
The two study populations
The calls of Red-capped Plover chicks were recorded in the Cheetham Wetlands (Victoria, Australia) and the Southern Masked Lapwings were studied on Phillip Island (Victoria, Australia). Parents brood and defend their chicks which fledge at about 35 days (plovers) and 45 days (lapwings) respectively. Nests were found during incubation and most chicks were ringed just after hatching. Each chick was measured & weighed, a recording was made, and a small amount of blood was taken, to establish sex.
Sound recordings were made using a portable digital recorder and an omnidirectional microphone. The 26 plover chicks made between 1 and 248 calls each and the 95 lapwing chicks produced between 1 and 336 calls. Data were collected from 9 female plovers and 17 males, between from the day of hatching and approximately 4 weeks of age. For lapwings the equivalent figures were 46 females, 49 males and up to 5 weeks of age.
Six call traits were analysed: call duration, the time between calls, entropy, minimum dominant frequency (kHz); dominant frequency range (the difference between a call’s minimum and maximum dominant frequency); and frequency modulation. Please see the Ibis paper for more details and technical information about the analyses. This related paper may also be of interest: Anatomy of avian distress calls: structure, variation, and complexity in two species of shorebird.
For Red-capped Plovers:
- Males were more vocal – time between calls was shorter for males than for females.
- Heavier (and hence older) chicks called more frequently.
- As mass increased, the dominant frequency range of calls decreased (calls became less shrill).
For Southern Masked Lapwings:
- For both sexes, dominant frequency range decreased with increasing body mass (calls became less shrill with age).
- The decline in dominant frequency range was greater in males, resulting in a lower dominant frequency range than for females. This meant that the difference between the calls of the two sexes became more discernible over time.
- Frequency modulation was lower for males than for females.
- As body mass increased, frequency modulation and entropy of lapwing calls decreased.
In the Discussion, the authors consider how a heavier bill and changes to the structure of the upper vocal tract might be linked to the results. It has been suggested that chicks modify sound output to utter more adult-like calls, as they get older.
A faster repetition rate of distress calling, as observed in Red-capped Plovers, might encourage parents to provide more defensive support for male chicks, which could contribute to the higher survival of male over female chicks, as reported for several plover species.
For Southern Masked Lapwings, there appeared to be sex-linked differences in calls from hatching, with these differences getting more marked with age. This could mean that either the voice anatomy develops differently or that vocal control is different in male and female chicks.
Both Red-capped Plovers and Southern Masked Lapwings are considered to be of ‘least concern’, according to the IUCN/BirdLife conservation criteria. Many other waders, around the globe, are under various levels of threat, with predator pressure being a significant cause of decline for some species. The ability of adults and chicks to stay together through to the fledging of the chicks could be particularly important, in these cases, with communication being key to success.
Kristal Kostoglou’s study analysed distress calls, which she and others suggest may be under the influence of natural selection. She points out that some non-distress vocalisations, such as contact calls, might communicate further information about the caller’s sex. It is also possible that distress calls may serve to communicate with siblings or with other chicks, not just with parents. In the paper, the authors suggest that future studies could investigate associations between shorebird chick calls and sex, using the full repertoire of chick calls and across species whose adult call repertoires and characteristics vary between sexes. There were few recaptures of chicks in this study and the authors suggests that it would be interesting to observe how calls of individually-marked chicks change over time.
A passing thought
One issue that might be considered by others is how chick calls develop if there are no parents in attendance, as we see if chicks are head-started. There is a growing movement to support populations of threatened wader species by removing first clutches of eggs, incubating them and then rearing the chicks in captivity. In their pens, they have no contact with adults and communicate only with each other.
It is clear that head-starting has worked for Spoon-billed Sandpipers, a species that was heading for extinction as discussed here, and the early signs are good for England’s breeding Black-tailed Godwits but do these hand-reared individuals miss out in some ways? Potentially the ‘language’ developed within the family may be important when the chicks are themselves parents? That’s not going to be easy to test! However, perhaps it might be possible to see if there are any differences in the development of calls between hand-reared and parent-reared chicks of the same species?
The study published in Ibis provides the first evidence for charadriid chicks of (a) a sex difference in call structure and rate and (b) gradual growth-related changes in call structure and rate, across chicks. The detailed write-up will hopefully be useful in further studies of shorebird vocalisations during growth, which may help further to explain the development and functional significance of all that squeaking!
Vocal traits of shorebird chicks are related to body mass and sex. Kristal N. Kostoglou, Edward H. Miller, Michael A. Weston and David R. Wilson. Ibis. https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.13055
WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton (@GrahamFAppleton) to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on published papers, with the aim of making shorebird science available to a broader audience.