Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'Multilingual' birds learn foreign alarm calls

New Scientist * 00:01 12 November 2008 by Rachel Nowak

Birdwatchers are all too aware that when a bird of one species spots a hawk and squawks an alarm, birds of other species fly for cover. What was unknown was whether this multilingual ability was "hard-wired" or whether birds learned the alarm calls of other birds on the job.

It now turns out that recognising alarm calls - even very different ones from other species - can now be added to the growing repertoire of things birds can learn Movie Camera, according to study led by behavioural ecologist Robert Magrath of the Australian National University in Canberra.

The Magrath team played recordings of calls of different bird species to fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) and monitored their response.

Fairy-wrens living in the Australian National Botanical Gardens and other parks in Canberra fled from the alarm calls of other fairy-wrens [hear audio] and scrubwrens (Sericornis frontalis) [hear audio], but not from the non-alarm call of the galah (Cacatua roseicapilla) [hear audio].

Fairy and scrubwrens have very similar alarm calls - a high-pitched piping noise - so the fairy-wren may have automatically recognised the alarm call of the scrubwren.

But whereas the two wren species naturally share the same habitat in the Canberra area, only fairy-wrens live in the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve in New South Wales, which is outside of the scrubwren range.

When the team played the calls here, fairy-wren only fled from the fairy-wren alarm call, and were unperturbed by scrubwren alarm calls, and galah non-alarm calls.

That suggests, says Magrath, that, rather than being hard-wired, the fairy-wren needed to have heard the scrubwrens' alarm call, and learnt that it meant danger.

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