Parent-offspring communication under the risk of predation

Scrub-wren. Photo by Ben_Pitcher


We are interested in how acoustic communication between parents and their offspring is shaped by the risk of predation.

Nestling birds face the dilemma that their calls for food may be overheard by predators. Parents might therefore be selected to give calls to warn nestlings about danger, but the parents also face a dilemma because their warning calls might themselves alert predators to the presence of young. We explore these interactions using audio recording, playback experiments and model presentations.

Key papers include:

  • Igic, B., McLachlan, J., Lehtinen, I. & Magrath, R. D. 2015. Crying wolf to a predator: deceptive vocal mimicry by a bird protecting young. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 282: 20150798. [See details under the vocal mimicry project.]
  • Ibáñez-Álamo, J. D., Magrath, R. D., Oteyza, J. C., Chalfoun, A. D., Haff, T. M. Schmidt, K. A., Thomson, R. L. & Martin, T. E. 2015. Nest predation research: recent findings and future perspectives. Journal of Ornithology. Online.
  • Haff, T. M., Horn, A. G., Leonard, M. L. & R. D. Magrath. 2015. Conspicuous calling near cryptic nests: a review of hypotheses and a field study on white-browed scrubwrens. Journal of Avian Biology, 46: 289-302. 
  • Haff TM, Magrath RD. 2013. To call or not to call: parents assess the vulnerability of their young before warning them about predators. Biology Letters 9: 20130745.
  • see:
  • Haff, T. M. & Magrath, R. D. 2013. Eavesdropping on the neighbours: fledglings learn to respond to heterospecific alarm. Animal Behaviour, 85: 411-418.
  • Haff, T. M. & Magrath, R. D. 2012. Learning to listen? Nestling response to heterospecific alarm calls. Animal Behaviour, 84: 1401-1410.
  • Haff, T. M. & Magrath, R. D. 2011 Calling at a cost: elevated nestling calling attracts predators to active nests. Biology Letters 7: 493-495.
  • Magrath, R. D., Haff, T. M., Horn, A. G., & Leonard, M. L. 2010 Calling in the face of danger: predation risk and acoustic communication by parent birds and their offspring. Adv. Study Behav., 41: 187-253.
  • Haff, T. & Magrath, R. D. 2010. Vulnerable but not helpless: nestlings are fine-tuned to cues of approaching danger. Anim. Behav., 79: 487-496.
  • Magrath R. D., Platzen D. & Kondo, J. 2006. From nestling calls to fledgling silence: adaptive timing of change in response to aerial alarm calls. Proc. R Soc. Lond. B, 273: 2335-2341.


  • Tonya Haff (Post-doc)
  • Rob Magrath (Lab leader)
  • Jessica McLaughlin (PhD Student, University of Cambridge & Australian National University)
  • Marty Leonard (Dalhouie University, Canada; Sabbatical Visiting Fellow ANU 2011 & current collaborator)
  • Andy Horn (Dalhouie University, Canada; Sabbatical Visiting Fellow ANU 2011 & current collaborator)

Updated:  26 June 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director RSB/Page Contact:  Webmaster RSB