Of Ducklings and Turing Machines: Interactive Playbacks Enhance Subsequent Responsiveness to Conspecific Calls


Animal Communication Laboratory, Department of Zoology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616-8761, U.S.A.


Distress calls of mallard ducklings consist of a highly stereotyped series of notes. When two ducklings are simultaneously separated from the brood, they characteristically call in alternation. Each bird inhibits its calls while the other is vocalizing, thus preventing masking and facilitating localization by the hen. I examined whether exposure of ducklings to calls presented in a naturalistic alternating pattern affected subsequent responsiveness to them. Individual ducklings were exposed to either 40 s or 80 s of computer-controlled distress call playbacks, using an algorithm that mimicked the behavior of another duckling. Calls were presented only when the subject was silent and ended as soon as it began to vocalize. Each of these ducklings was paired with a ‘yoked’ control. Birds in these control groups experienced exactly the same pattern of playbacks as the ‘interactive’ birds, but the stimuli had no consistent relationship to their own vocal behavior. When the same calls were played back 24 h later, in a fixed pattern that was independent of the ducklings' behavior, birds that had received 80 s of prior interactive exposure were significantly more responsive than both their yoked controls and birds receiving only 40 s of such playbacks. This result suggests that interactive vocal experience, characteristic of natural communication, affects the subsequent perceptual sensitivity of ducklings.