Journal article

Big brother is watching you: eavesdropping to resolve family conflicts

Adult animals can eavesdrop on behavioral interactions between potential opponents to assess their competitive ability and motivation to contest resources without interacting directly with them. Surprisingly, eavesdropping is not yet considered as an important factor used to resolve conflicts between family members. In this study, we show that nestling barn owls (Tyto alba) competing for food eavesdrop on nestmates' vocal interactions to assess the dominance status and food needs of opponents. During a first training playback session, we broadcasted to singleton bystander nestlings a simulated vocal interaction between 2 prerecorded individuals, 1 relatively old (i.e., senior) and 1 younger nestling (i.e., junior). One playback individual, the "responder," called systematically just after the "initiator" playback individual, hence displaying a higher hunger level. To test whether nestlings have eavesdropped on this interaction, we broadcasted the same prerecorded individuals separately in a subsequent playback test session. Nestlings vocalized more rapidly after former initiators' than responders' calls and they produced more calls when the broadcasted individual was formerly a junior initiator. They chiefly challenged vocally juniors and initiators against whom the likelihood of winning a vocal contest is higher. Owlets, therefore, identified the age hierarchy between 2 competitors based on their vocalizations. They also memorized the dynamics of competitors' previous vocal interactions, and used this information to optimally adjust signaling level once interacting with only 1 of the competitor. We conclude that siblings eavesdrop on one another to resolve conflicts over parental resources.


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