Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 6, pp 1095–1103 | Cite as

The role of associative learning process on the response of fledgling great tits (Parus major) to mobbing calls

  • Mylène DutourEmail author
  • Jean-Paul Léna
  • Adeline Dumet
  • Vanessa Gardette
  • Nathalie Mondy
  • Thierry Lengagne
Original Paper


When they detect a predator, many species emit anti-predator vocalizations. In some cases, they emit mobbing calls, which are associated with the caller approaching and harassing the predator while attracting others to join it. Surprisingly, although mobbing has been widely reported in adults of numerous species, there has been no test of the role of learning in mobbing call recognition, especially during ontogeny. Here, we exposed wild great tit (Parus major) nestlings to playbacks of an unthreatening novel sound either associated with conspecific mobbing calls (experimental treatment) or with another unthreatening novel sound (control treatment). We then tested them as nestlings and fledglings to see how they respond to the novel sound compared to conspecific mobbing calls. Results revealed that fledglings in the experimental treatment behaved similarly to conspecific mobbing calls and the novel sound associated with conspecific mobbing calls. Because mobbing efficiency is often linked to interspecific communication, associative learning should be used by heterospecifics as mobbing calls recognition mechanism. Regardless of treatment during the nestling phase, fledglings always were sensitive to the playback of conspecific mobbing calls. However, fledglings from the control group were more likely to approach the loudspeaker than those from the experimental group when mobbing calls were played suggesting that overexposure during the nestling phase altered mobbing learning. Overall, these results suggest that learning could play a role in the recognition of calls, like heterospecific mobbing calls, when paired with conspecific mobbing, and that mobbing is perceived as a threatening stimulus from a very young age.


Alarm call Associative learning Birds Communication Mobbing 



We warmly thank the “Fondation Pierre Vérots” (PVF) for giving us access to the field site. We are indebted to J.P. Rabatel (PVF) for his assistance. We express our gratitude to several students who assisted with the field work. We are grateful to Bernard Kaufmann for English corrections. We thank the editor, Christoph Randler, and anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.


This work was supported by French Ministry of Research and Higher Education funding (to M.D. PhD grants 2015–2018).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

Our work was carried out under permission from the Prefecture du Rhône (Ref. 2015-13), Prefecture de l’Ain (DDPP01-15-230) and with the approval of the ethics committee at Lyon 1 University, France (permit number: 2017012410184917). All authors are accredited for performing experiments with living animals (French diploma “Experimentation animale” first level for researchers). After ringing, all nestlings were readily accepted back by their parents.

Human and animal rights

This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.

Supplementary material

10071_2019_1301_MOESM1_ESM.docx (161 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 161 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université de Lyon, UMR5023 Ecologie des Hydrosystèmes Naturels et Anthropisés, Université Lyon 1, ENTPE, CNRSVilleurbanneFrance

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