Singing in the Face of Danger: the Anomalous Type II Vocalization of the Splendid Fairy-Wren


Stephen Pruett-Jones, Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 1101 E 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. E-mail:


Males of certain species of fairy-wrens (Aves: Maluridae) emit a unique vocalization, the Type II vocalization, in response to the calls of potential predators. We conducted field observations and playback experiments to identify the contexts in which the Type II vocalization is emitted by splendid fairy-wren (Malurus splendens) males, and to examine social and genetic factors that influence its occurrence. In field observations and controlled playback experiments, Type II vocalizations were elicited most consistently by calls of the predatory gray butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus). Some vocalizations from other avian species also elicited Type II vocalizations, and the majority of these were vocalizations from avian predators. Splendid fairy-wrens are cooperative breeders, and males that responded with Type II vocalizations to playbacks of butcherbird calls tended to be primary rather than secondary males, had larger cloacal protuberances, and were older than those that did not respond. In addition, secondary males that were sons of resident females were more likely than non-sons to respond with a Type II vocalization. In another playback experiment, females responded similarly to the Type I song and Type II vocalizations of their mates. Although the Type II vocalization is emitted primarily in response to predator calls, it is inconsistent with an alarm call explanation. Patterns of reproductive success among Type II calling males suggest that it does not function as an honest signal of male quality. At present, the function of the vocalization remains anomalous, but indirect fitness benefits may play a role in its explanation.