Rob Magrath

I completed my first degree at Monash University in Melbourne, and then worked on a conservation biology project on lesser floricans, a small bustard found in the grasslands of western India, and as a volunteer on the mating system Lawes' parotia, a bird of paradise that lives in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. After a period drifting in the South Pacific, I migrated north to do my PhD on breeding strategies in European blackbirds at the University of Cambridge, and then taught in the Edward Grey Institute in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford. The temptation to do field research on unstudied birds - without needing a raincoat - finally brought me to The Australian National University, where I have been working on avian social behaviour, breeding biology and acoustic communication. I was an Editor for the Journal of Avian Biology from 2000-2013, Secretary of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology from to 2006 to 2014, and am currently on the Editorial Boards of Bioacoustics, Biology Letters and the Australian Journal of Zoology.

Research interests

Most of my students study acoustic communication in birds. We study acoustic communication in birds, particularly communication about danger and vocal mimicry. We study alarm calls, song, duetting, eavesdropping on other species, and communication between parents and their young.

Recent grants

  • 2003-2005. Magrath. ARC Discovery Grant. Communication and predation in scrubwrens: alarm calls and eavesdropping.
  • 2006-2009. Magrath. ARC Discovery Grant. Interspecific communication and the evolution of alarm calls
  • 2007. Dalziell. Birds Australia Stuart Leslie Student Research award. Lyrebird mimicry
  • 2008. Dalziell. Australian National Geographic Research award; Birds Australia award extension. Lyrebird mimicry
  • 2010. Haff. Canberra Bird Conservation Fund from the Canberra Ornithologist's group. Parent-offspring communication
  • 2010. Haff. Cayley Memorial Scholarship, Gould League of New South Wales. Parent-offspring communication.
  • 2015-18. Magrath, Radford & Fernandez-Juricic. Not lost in translation: how to get reliable informaiton from other species' alarm calls?

Selected publications

Ratnayake, C. P., Zhou, Y., Dawson Pell, F. S. E., Potvin, D. A., Radford, A. N., Magrath, R. D. 2021. Visual obstruction, but not moderate traffic noise, increases reliance on heterospecific alarm calls. Behavioral Ecology, in press.

  • Dalziell, A. H., Maisey, A. C., Magrath, R. D., & Welbergen, J. A. 2021 Male lyrebirds create a complex illusion of a mobbing flock during courtship and copulation. Current Biology 31, 1-7.

  • Ręk, P. & Magrath, R. D. 2020. Visual displays enhance vocal duet production and the perception of coordination despite spatial separation of partners. Animal Behaviour, 168: 231-241

  • Rowell, T.A.A.D., Magrath, M.J.L., & Magrath, R.D. 2020. Predator-awareness training in terrestrial vertebrates: progress, problems and possibilities. Biological Conservation, 252: 108740.McLachlan, J. R. & Magrath, R. D. 2020. Speedy revelations: how alarm calls can convey rapid, reliable information about urgent danger. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 287: 20192772.

  • Tegtman, N. & Magrath, R. 2020 Discriminating between similar alarm calls of contrasting function. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B, 375: 20190474.

  • Zhou, Y., Radford, A.N. & Magrath, R.D. 2019. Why does noise reduce response to alarm calls? Experimental assessment of masking, distraction and greater vigilance in wild birds. Functional Ecology33: 1280-1289.

  • McLachlan, J. R., Ratnayake, C.P., & Magrath, R.D. 2019. Personal information about danger trumps social information from avian alarm calls. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 286: 20182945.

    Magrath, R. D., Haff, T. M. & Igic, B. 2020. Interspecific communication: gaining information from heterospecific alarm calls. In Coding Strategies in Vertebrate Acoustic Communication (Eds. T. Aubin & N. Mathevon). Heidelberg: Springer.

    Igic, B., Ratnayake, C.P., Radford, A.N. & Magrath, R.D. 2019. Eavesdropping magpies respond to the number of heterospecifics giving alarm calls but not the number of species calling. Animal Behaviour148: 133-143.

  • Potvin, D.A., Ratnayake, C.P., Radford, A.N. & Magrath, R.D. 2018. Birds learn socially to recognize heterospecific alarm calls by acoustic association. Current Biology, 28: 1-6.

    Dawson Pell, F.S.E., Potvin, D.A., Ratnayake, C.P., Fernández-Juricic, E., Magrath, R.D. & Radford, A.N. 2018. Birds orient their heads appropriately in response to functionally referential alarm calls of heterospecifics.Animal Behaviour, 140: 109-118.

  • Murray, T. G., Zeil, J. & Magrath, R. D. 2017. Modified flight feathers produce sounds that are reliable alarm signals. Current Biology, 27: 1-6.

    Ręk, P. & Magrath, R. D. 2017. Deceptive vocal duets and multi-modal display in a songbird. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 284: 20171774.

    Butler, N. E., Magrath, R. D. & Peters, R. A. 2017. Lack of alarm calls in a gregarious bird: models and videos of predators prompt alarm responses but no alarm calls by zebra finches. Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology 71: 113.

    McQueen, A., Naimo, A. C, Teunissen, N., Magrath, R. D., Delhey, K. & Peters, A. 2017. Bright birds are cautious: seasonally conspicuous plumage prompts risk avoidance in male superb fairy-wrens. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 284: 20170446.

    Cunningham, S. & Magrath, R. D. 2017. Functionally referential alarm calls in noisy miners communicate about predator behaviour. Animal Behaviour, 129: 171-179.

    Ręk, P. & Magrath, R. D. 2016. Multimodal duetting in magpie-larks: how do vocal and visual components contribute to a cooperative signal’s function? Animal Behaviour, 117: 35-42.

    Magrath, R. D., Haff, T. M., McLachlan, J. R. & Igic, B. 2015. Learning by wild birds to eavesdrop on heterospecific alarm calls. Current Biology 25: 2047-2050.

    Murray, T. G. & Magrath, R. D. 2015. Does signal deterioration compromise eavesdropping upon other species' alarm calls? Animal Behaviour 108: 33-41.

  • 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.

    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, 156 (Suppl. 1): S247-S262.

  • Dalziell, A.H., Peters, R.A., Cockburn, A., Dorland, D.D., Maisey, A.C. & Magrath, R.D. 2013. Dance choreography is coordinated with song repertoire in a complex avian display. Current Biology, 23 (12): 1132-1135

  • Dalziell, A. H., Welbergen, J. A., Igic, B. & R. D. Magrath. 2015. Avian vocal mimicry: a unified conceptual framework. Biological Reviews, 90: 643-658.

    Magrath, R. D., Haff, T. M., Fallow, P. M. & Radford, A. N. 2015. Eavesdropping on heterospecific alarm calls: from mechanisms to consequences. Biological Reviews, 90: 560-586.

    Igic, B. & Magrath, R. D. 2014. A songbird mimics different heterospecific alarm calls in response to different types of threat. Behavioral Ecology, 25: 538–548.

  • Haff TM, Magrath RD. 2013. To call or not to call: parents assess the vulnerability of their young before warning them about predatorsBiology Letters, 9: 20130745.

  • Dalziell, A.H., Peters, R.A., Cockburn, A., Dorland, D.D., Maisey, A.C. & Magrath, R.D. 2013. Dance choreography is coordinated with song repertoire in a complex avian display. Current Biology, 23 (12): 1132-1135.
  • Igic, B. & Magrath, R. D. 2013. Fidelity of vocal mimicry: identification and accuracy of mimicry of heterospecific alarm calls by the brown thornbill. Animal Behaviour, 85: 593-603.
  • Fallow, P. M., Pitcher, B. J. & Magrath, R.D. 2013. Alarming features: birds use specific acoustic properties to identify heterospecific alarm calls. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 280: 20122539.
  • 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
  • Dalziell, A. H. & Magrath, R. D. 2012. Fooling the experts: accurate vocal mimicry in the song of the superb lyrebird, Menura novaehollandiae. Animal Behaviour, 83: 1401-1410.
  • Magrath, R. D. & Bennett, T. H. 2012. A micro-geography of fear: learning to eavesdrop on alarm calls of neighbouring heterospecifics. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 279: 902-909.
  • Haff, T. M. & Magrath, R. D. 2011. Calling at a cost: elevated nestling calling attracts predators to active nests. Biology Letters 7: 493-495.
  • Fallow, P. M., Gardner, J. L. & Magrath, R. D. 2011. Sound familiar? Acoustic similarity provokes responses to unfamiliar heterospecific alarm calls. Behavioral Ecology, 22: 401-410.
  • Gardner, J. L., Trueman, J. W. H., Ebert, D., Joseph, L. & Magrath, R. D. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of the Meliphagoidea, the largest radiation of Australasian songbirds. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 55: 1087-1102.
  • 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. Advances in the Study Behavior, 41: 187-253.
  • Goodale, E., Beauchamp, G. Magrath, R. D., Nieh, J. C. & Ruxton, G. D. 2010. Interspecific information flow influences animal community structure. Trends in Evolution and Ecology, 25: 354-361. 
  • Haff, T. & Magrath, R. D. 2010. Vulnerable but not helpless: nestlings are fine-tuned to cues of approaching danger. Animal Behaviour, 79: 487-496.
  • Fallow, P. M. & Magrath, R. D. 2010. Eavesdropping on other species: mutual interspecific understanding of urgency information in avian alarm calls. Animal Behaviour, 79: 411-417. 
  • Hingee, M. & Magrath, R. D. 2009. Flights of fear: a mechanical wing whistle sounds the alarm in a flocking bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 276: 4173-4179.
  • 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? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 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.
  • Hall, M. L. & Magrath, R. D. 2007. Temporal coordination signals coalition quality. Current Biology 17: R406-407.
  • Magrath R. D., Platzen D. & Kondo, J. 2006. From nestling calls to fledgling silence: adaptive timing of change in response to aerial alarm calls. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 273: 2335-2341.
  • Platzen D. & Magrath R. D. 2005. Adaptive differences in response to two types of parental alarm calls in altricial nestlings. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 272: 1101-1106.
  • Leavesley A & Magrath RD. 2005. Communicating about danger: urgency alarm calling in a bird. Animal Behaviour 70: 365-373.
  • Platzen, D. & Magrath, R. D. 2004. Parental alarm calls suppress nestling vocalization. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B, 271, 1271-1276.
  • Magrath, R. D., Johnstone, R. A. & Heinsohn, R. G. 2004. Reproductive skew. In: Ecology and Evolution of Cooperative Breeding in Birds (Ed. by Koenig, W. D. & Dickinson, J. L.), pp. 157-176. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Leedman, A. W. & Magrath, R. D. 2003. Long-term brood division and exclusive parental care in a cooperatively breeding passerine. Animal Behaviour, 65, 1093-1108.
  • Magrath, R. D. 2001. Group breeding dramatically increases reproductive success of yearling but not older female scrubwrens: a model for cooperatively breeding birds? Journal of Animal Ecology, 70, 370-385.
  • Nicholls, J. A., Double, M. C., Rowell, D. M. & Magrath, R. D. 2000. The evolution of cooperative and pair breeding in the thornbills Acanthiza (Aves: Pardalotidae). Journal of Avian Biology, 31, 165-176.
  • Krebs, E. A. & Magrath, R. D. 2000. Food allocation in crimson rosella broods: parents differ in their responses to chick hunger. Animal Behaviour, 59, 739-751.
  • Hall, M. L. & Magrath, R. D. 2000. Duetting and mate-guarding in Australian magpie-larks (Grallina cyanoleuca). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 47, 180-187.
  • Magrath, R. D. & Whittingham, L. A. 1997. Subordinate males are more likely to help if unrelated to the breeding female in cooperatively-breeding white-browed scrubwrens. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 41, 185-192.
  • Whittingham, L. A., Dunn, P. O. & Magrath, R. D. 1997. Relatedness, polyandry and extra-group paternity in the cooperatively-breeding white-browed scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 40, 261-70.
  • Crick, H. Q. P., Gibbons, D. W. & Magrath, R. D. 1993. Seasonal variation in clutch size in British birds. Journal of Animal Ecology, 62, 263-273.
  • Magrath, R. D. 1992. The effect of egg mass on the growth and survival of blackbirds: a field experiment. Journal of Zoology, London, 227, 639-653.
  • Magrath, R. D. 1991. Nestling weight and juvenile survival in the blackbird, Turdus merula. Journal of Animal Ecology, 60, 335-351.
  • Magrath, R. D. 1990. Hatching asynchrony in altricial birds. Biological Reviews, 65, 587-622.
  • Magrath, R. D. 1989. Hatching asynchrony and reproductive success in the blackbird. Nature, 339, 536-538.


All publications

I usually teach in three undergraduate courses, as well as taking Honours, Special Topics and PhD students.

Biology 1003 : Evolution, Ecology and Genetics
I teach the Behavioural Ecology section of this course, which aims to introduce some of the major concepts in the study of life, focusing on evolutionary and ecological questions.

Biology 3131 : Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology
The course is designed to introduce advanced concepts in evolutionary and behavioural ecology, with a focus on current research, including that carried out in the Research School of Biology. I have been the coordinator in many years, including from 2013.

Biology 3132: Field Studies in Behavioural Ecology
This course complements BIOL3131, and deals with carrying out research on the behaviour of free-living animals. We work in small tutorial groups to develop hypotheses about behaviour that are tested during a week-long field trip. Results are presented in a poster at the course 'conference' and in a report in the form of a scientific paper. The course emphasises the design and effective reporting of scientific research. Research topics in recent years have included: anti-predator behaviour in kangaroos; foraging behaviour of antlions; social foraging in seagulls; alarm calls in birds; schooling in fish. I coordinated the course since it was introduced until 2012, and Pat Backwell has been coordinating the course since 2013.

Biology Honours
I am the Division of Ecology, Evolution & Genetics representative on the Honours committee.