Distress calls are loud, harsh calls given by some species of birds when they are captured by a predator or handled by humans. We recorded the frequency of distress calls and struggling behavior in 40 species of birds captured in mist nets during the dry season in a Costa Rica cloud forest. We tested the following hypotheses proposed to explain the function of distress calls: (1) calling for help from kin or reciprocal altruists; (2) warning kin; (3) eliciting mobbing behavior; (4) startling the predator; and (5) distracting the predator through attraction of additional predators. Our results did not support the calling-for-help, warning kin, or mobbing hypotheses. Indeed, genera that regularly occurred with kin or in flocks were not more likely to call than non-flocking genera. There was no relationship between calling frequency and struggling behavior as predicted by the predator startle hypothesis. Genera of larger birds tended to call more than smaller birds, providing some support for both the predator distraction hypothesis and predator startle hypotheses. Calls of higher amplitude may be more effective in startling the predator. Distress calls of larger birds may also travel greater distances than those of smaller birds, supporting the predator manipulation hypothesis, but this requires further testing.
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Vol. 34 • No. 1