Innate plasticity of a predatory behavior: Nonlearned context dependence of avian flush-displays

Piotr G. Jabłoński, Sang Don Lee, Leszek Jerzak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


If a foraging adaptation comprises a signal for sensory exploitation of prey, does the behavior and its use develop through learning, like many foraging behaviors or does it depend on nonlearned stereotypical motor actions, like many signals for sensory exploitation? We asked whether the visually conspicuous motor pattern of body pivoting with spread tail and wings used by the painted redstart (Myioborus pictus) to flush insect prey is a nonlearned phenotypic trait. The motion pattern and the increase in these displays under branches (context dependence based on physical properties of the habitat) help the wild birds in foraging because prey that rest on substrates is visually stimulated, flushed into the air, and consequently chased in aerial pursuits. In unrewarded conditions in the aviary, both the foraging-experienced adults and the foraging-naive hand-raised fledglings increased the frequency of flush-displays at locations with substrates above birds, recreating the pattern of foraging observed in adults in their natural habitats. The results imply that parent-offspring cultural transmission or learning during foraging is not required for the development of both the display motion pattern and the adaptive context-dependent increase in display frequency. Such a nonlearned context dependence based on physical properties of the habitat is remarkable considering that avian foraging context-dependent plasticity is often based on learning. We hypothesize that this innate character of the signals may be a result of evolution to exploit universal properties of visually triggered escape behaviors of various insects that are predictably flushed from their resting sites in the habitat.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)925-932
Number of pages8
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2006

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The funds from the following organizations are acknowledged: the Research Grant from the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour, the fellowship from the Kosciuszko Foundation, KBN grant nr 6 PO4F 063 21, NSF grant nr 0133874, the fellowship from KOSEF International Program 2005–2006, KOSEF Basic Science (R01-2003-000-10317-0), KRF-2005-003-C00162, and funding from the University of Zielona Góra. We thank N.J. Strausfeld and J. Douglass for advice; B.P. Kavanagh, K. Lasater, S.-I. Lee, R. Mumme, and P. Matyjasiak for comments; and the Southwestern Research Station staff and volunteers for their help. We thank Emily and Wade Sherbrooke, David Utterback, and all friends in Portal area for their hospitality during fieldwork. The following permits were obtained for the work: Scientific Use Permit from the US Forest Service Coronado National Forest Douglass District, Bird Banding Permit #07998-M, Scientific Collecting Permit nr SP 907671 from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the Migratory Bird-Scientific Collecting Permit SCCL 009525 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.


  • Behavioral evolution
  • Flush-pursuer
  • Foraging mode
  • Innate behavior
  • Myioborus pictus
  • Predator-prey
  • Sensory exploitation


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