Wrens eavesdrop on the neighbors

Aug 17, 2011
Male superb fairy-wren. Photo by Simon Bennet.

Superb fairy-wrens eavesdrop, learn to understand and react to the danger calls of other bird species that live nearby, according to new research published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Associate Professor Robert Magrath and Thomas Bennett from the Research School of Biology at The Australian National University made the discovery by playing recordings of miner-bird danger calls to fairy-wrens and observed the wrens fleeing to safety.

“The ability of superb fairy-wrens to eavesdrop on other is remarkable, because alarm calls sound different for each different species,” Associate Professor Magrath said.

“We found that the fairy-wrens have to learn what the other species’ calls mean so that they know when they need to take action to avoid danger.”

Superb fairy-wrens are small blue wrens, common in the south-east corner of Australia.

“The behaviour we observed was particularly interesting because the fairy-wrens only reacted to the danger call recordings if miner birds were common in the immediate area,” Associate Professor Magrath explained.

“For example, fairy-wrens living on one side of a road where miners were present fled when noisy miner alarms were played back to them, while those over the road did not react.

“This supports the notion that fairy-wrens have to learn to understand other local bird calls, rather than simply reacting because danger calls are loud or rapid.”

Learning to listen to other species’ danger signals allows the fairy-wrens to react quickly to danger, whether it is spotted by fellow wrens or by other species in the local area.

The research suggests that birds can cope with a new environment by learning about the local community, and provides a valuable insight into how species like the superb fairy-wren will adapt to the rapidly changing world.

Explore further: Deep sea fish eyesight similar to human vision

Provided by Australian National University

5 /5 (2 votes)

Related Stories

Australian birds attract mates with 'scary movie effect'

Jan 18, 2011

Using a horror film to bring your date closer is a classic move in the teenage playbook. Now, a study of Australian birds finds that other animals use the same "scary movie effect" to attract female attention, ...

Faithful males do not bring flowers

May 19, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Fairy-wrens are notorious for their infidelity: despite living in seemingly harmonious monogamous pairs, females produce mostly illegitimate young, and males spend more time courting other ...

Fairy wrens: Accountants of the animal kingdom

Mar 18, 2011

A puzzling example of altruism in nature has been debunked with researchers showing that purple-crowned fairy wrens are in reality cunningly planning for their own future when they assist in raising other ...

Babysitting birds gain from growing pains

May 02, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- The baffling question of why some animals help raise offspring which aren’t their own is closer to being answered, thanks to new research from The Australian National University.

Mother's little helpers

Aug 16, 2007

An Australian bird has been found to produce smaller, less nourishing eggs when it breeds in the presence of other ‘helper’ birds that provide child-care assistance. This unique adaptation enables the ...

Recommended for you

Dogs hear our words and how we say them

Nov 26, 2014

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said—those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences—but also to other features of that speech—the ...

Amazonian shrimps: An underwater world still unknown

Nov 26, 2014

A study reveals how little we know about the Amazonian diversity. Aiming to resolve a scientific debate about the validity of two species of freshwater shrimp described in the first half of the last century, ...

Factors that drive sexual traits

Nov 26, 2014

Many male animals have multiple displays and behaviours to attract females; and often the larger or greater the better.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2011
You'd be surprised how many different animals understand, to some extent, what each others' calls mean. Squirrels know distress/alarm calls of birds, cats know squirrel calls, etc. I have a blind/feeder setup at my window and play with animal call soundboards when birds/squirrels are feeding. I have been very surprised by the reactions I get.

It's interesting because , for example, when we(humans) are in a country with a different language, if we were hearing somebody yelling to warn us about something we'd be clueless.

So, animals are , to some extent, multi-linguistic. When a Bluejay makes a warning call, and a Cardinal, a Sparrow, a Squirrel , and a crow all understand the meaning behind the call, you have admit that's impressive and points to much richer social dynamics and a depth we are blinded to.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.