Ground-nesting birds have a hard time raising their young, with many eggs and chicks falling prey to predators like chipmunks. One way they overcome these problems is by eavesdropping on the chips, chucks and trills that their enemies the chipmunks use to communicate with each other, and then using this information to find safer spots to build their nests.

Biologist Quinn Emmering says, "Veeries and ovenbirds arrive annually from their tropical wintering grounds to temperate forests. They must immediately choose where to nest. A safe neighborhood is paramount, as many nests fail due to predation. Predators are abundant. However, many predators communicate with one another using various calls, scent marks or visual displays that become publicly available for eavesdropping prey to exploit."

Working in the forested hills of the Hudson Valley 85 miles north of New York City, Emmering and fellow biologist Kenneth Schmidt tested their theory that ovenbirds and veeries might be eavesdropping on chipmunks’ calls before deciding where to nest. They placed speakers at 28 study plots that played either chipmunk or grey tree frog calls (as a control), while at 16 "silent" control sites no recordings were played.

Emmering says, “Chipmunks call often during the day and sometimes join in large choruses. We thought this might be a conspicuous cue that nesting birds could exploit." And they guessed right: The researchers found that the two species nested further away from plots where chipmunk calls were played.

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