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Abstract

A long-standing question in animal communication is whether signals reveal intrinsic properties of the signaller or extrinsic properties of its environment. Alarm calls, one of the most conspicuous components of antipredator behaviour, intuitively would appear to reflect internal states of the signaller. Pioneering research in primates and fowl, however, demonstrated that signallers may produce unique alarm calls during encounters with different types of predators, suggesting that signallers through selective production of alarm calls provide to conspecific receivers information about predators in the environment. In this article, we review evidence for such ‘functional reference’ in the alarm calls of birds based on explicit tests of two criteria proposed in Macedonia & Evans’ (Ethology 93, 1993, 177) influential conceptual framework: (1) that unique alarm calls are given to specific predator categories, and (2) that alarm calls isolated from contextual information elicit antipredator responses from receivers similar to those produced during actual predator encounters. Despite the importance of research on birds in development of the conceptual framework and the ubiquity of alarm calls in birds, evidence for functionally referential alarm calls in this clade is limited to six species. In these species, alarm calls are associated with the type of predator encountered as well as variation in hunting behaviour; with defence of reproductive effort in addition to predators of adults; with age-related changes in predation risk; and with strong fitness benefits. Our review likely underestimates the occurrence of functional reference in avian alarm calls, as incomplete application and testing of the conceptual framework has limited our understanding. Throughout, therefore, we suggest avian taxa for future studies, as well as additional questions and experimental approaches that would strengthen our understanding of the meaning of functional reference in avian alarm calls.