Western Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) Eavesdrop on Alarm Calls of Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus)



Animals sharing a common habitat can indirectly receive information about their environment by observing information exchanges between other animals, a process known as eavesdropping. Animals that use an auditory alarm calling system are an important indirect information source for eavesdropping individuals in their environments. We investigated whether Western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) nesting on black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colonies responded to broadcasts of prairie dog alarm calls. Western burrowing owls are closely associated with black-tailed prairie dogs in Colorado and neighboring states on the Great Plains of the United States. Prairie dog burrows in active colonies can serve as nesting sites for Western burrowing owls, and prairie dogs may act as an alternative prey source for predators, potentially decreasing the burrowing owls' risk of predation through the dilution effect. Burrowing owls nesting on prairie dog colonies may also eavesdrop on prairie dog alarm calls, enhancing their survival and nesting success on prairie dog colonies. We performed broadcast experiments with three different sounds: a prairie dog alarm call, a biological control (cattle mooing), and a non-biological control (an airplane engine), and characterized burrowing owl responses as either alert or relaxed. For each sound stimulus, we recorded the time to first alert response to broadcast sounds (latency) and also how frequently the target burrowing owl exhibited an alert response within the first ten seconds of the broadcast (intensity). Burrowing owls reacted more quickly to the prairie dog alarm than to the biological control. They significantly increased the intensity of alert behaviors in response to broadcasts of the alarm, but did not show an increased reaction to either the biological or the non-biological control. Our results suggest that burrowing owls nesting on prairie dog colonies eavesdrop on, and increase their alert behaviors in response to, prairie dog alarm calls.