Individual vocal signatures in barn owl nestlings: does individual recognition have an adaptive role in sibling vocal competition?


  • Correction added on 22 November 2013, after first online publication: grammatical error in title corrected.


To compete over limited parental resources, young animals communicate with their parents and siblings by producing honest vocal signals of need. Components of begging calls that are sensitive to food deprivation may honestly signal need, whereas other components may be associated with individual-specific attributes that do not change with time such as identity, sex, absolute age and hierarchy. In a sib–sib communication system where barn owl (Tyto alba) nestlings vocally negotiate priority access to food resources, we show that calls have individual signatures that are used by nestlings to recognize which siblings are motivated to compete, even if most vocalization features vary with hunger level. Nestlings were more identifiable when food-deprived than food-satiated, suggesting that vocal identity is emphasized when the benefit of winning a vocal contest is higher. In broods where siblings interact iteratively, we speculate that individual-specific signature permits siblings to verify that the most vocal individual in the absence of parents is the one that indeed perceived the food brought by parents. Individual recognition may also allow nestlings to associate identity with individual-specific characteristics such as position in the within-brood dominance hierarchy. Calls indeed revealed age hierarchy and to a lower extent sex and absolute age. Using a cross-fostering experimental design, we show that most acoustic features were related to the nest of origin (but not the nest of rearing), suggesting a genetic or an early developmental effect on the ontogeny of vocal signatures. To conclude, our study suggests that sibling competition has promoted the evolution of vocal behaviours that signal not only hunger level but also intrinsic individual characteristics such as identity, family, sex and age.