Social communication and interspecific alarm signalling in birds

white-browed_scrubwrenWhile at the ANU I worked with Rob Magrath to study social communication and interspecific alarm signalling in birds. More information about Rob’s research is available on his website.

While completing my honours I studied the contact calls of the white-browed scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis), a small cooperatively breeding territorial passerine. I was particularly interested in their role in territorial interactions and individual recognition.

Following my degree I stayed on with Rob as a research assistant. During this time I worked with him on nestling behaviour, investigating parent-nestling communication in scrubwrens and the strategies used by nestlings to assess the risk of begging. While parents can control begging in nestling to a certain extent using food and alarm calls, nestling can also assess risk and respond to the sound of a predator approaching the nest.

While with the Magrath Lab, I also worked with Rob and Janet Gardner, investigating inter-specific recognition of alarm calls in the Meliphagoidea group of Australian birds. Similarity in alarm call structure and predators may allow inter-specific eavesdropping or potentially communication between prey species. Using model predators and playback studies, we investigated whether alarm call similarity was necessary for inter-specific communication and the potential reliability of inter-specific signals.

Related Publicationsflying-birds-and-mugshots-3-7-06-013cropped

Fallow, P.M., Pitcher, B.J., Magrath, R.D. 2013. Alarming features: birds use specific acoustic properties to identify heterospecific alarm calls. Proc. R. Soc. B

Magrath, R.D., Pitcher, B.J., Gardner, J.L. 2009. An avian eavesdropping network: alarm signal reliability and heterospecific response. Behavioral Ecology 20: 745-752.

Magrath, R.D., Pitcher, B.J., Gardner, J.L. 2009. Recognition of other species’ aerial alarm calls: speaking the same language or learning another? Proc. R. Soc. B 276: 769-774.

Magrath, R.D., Pitcher, B.J., Dalziell, A.H. 2007. How to be fed but not eaten: nestling responses to parental food calls and the sound of a predator’s footsteps. Animal Behaviour 74: 1117-1129.

Magrath, R.D., Pitcher, B.J., Gardner, J.L. 2007. A mutual understanding? Interspecific responses by birds to each other’s aerial alarm calls. Behavioral Ecology 18: 944-951.

Conference Presentations

Magrath RD and Pitcher BJ. Whatever turns you on? Risk management and parent-offspring communication in scrubwrens.
The 11th Congress of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology (2006). Tours, France.


Magrath Lab – Behavioural ecology; acoustic communication; ornithology