More about the Magrath Lab

Research highlights 

  • Many birds eavesdrop on the alarm calls of other species. We've shown the subtly on information conveyed, and discovered that birds often have to learn to recognize other species alarm calls, despite the common view that the are innately scary. They can even do so through social learning, without ever having to see a predator!
    • 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.
    • 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: 2632-2637.
    • Cunningham, S. & Magrath, R. D. 2017. Functionally referential alarm calls in noisy miners communicate about predator behaviour. Animal Behaviour, 129: 171-179.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • We're interested in signal design, and a highlight has been demonstrating, through experimental manipulations and playbacks, that crested pigeons have evolved special wing feathers to honestly signal about danger.
    • Murray, T. G., Zeil, J. & Magrath, R. D. 2017. Modified flight feathers produce sounds that are reliable alarm signals. Current Biology, 27: 3520-3525.
    • 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.
  • Our work highlights the complexities of vocal mimicry, which includes remarkable deception or other species, and even potential mates.
    • 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. Lyrebird vocal ability is astonishing, and potentially deceptive during courthip and mating.
    • 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. Thornbills used different types of mimicry in different contexts, implying that mimicry can have multiple function. Furthermore, although adults often mimic appropriate alarm calls according to the types of predator, they use "inappropriate" alarm calls when defending their nest against predators, suggesing deception.
    • 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. This paper shows experimentally that thornbill parents do deceive nest predators by mimicking a chorus of "hawk" alarm calls from up to four species. This simulates the presence of a hunting hawk, and fools a major nest predator into stopping attack and sometimes fleeing. The work has been extensively covered in the media worldwide; see the link under News.
  • Our review of vocal mimicry surveys current knowledge of vocal mimicry in the light of a new conceptual framework, which unifies the study of vocal mimicry and the well-established study of other types of mimicry, such a visual Batesian mimicry.
    • Dalziell, A. H., Welbergen, J. A., Igic, B. & R. D. Magrath. 2015. Avian vocal mimicry: a unified conceptual framework. Biological Reviews, 90: 643-658. 
  • Our paper in Biology Letters shows that scrubwren parents take nestling vulnerability into account when deciding whether to give alarm calls to warn their young about predators. This shows that birds, and not just primates, consider audience vulnerability when giving alarm calls. The findings were reported in the media: 'Birds decide when to call and not callABC Science, 16 October 2013.
  • Another paper on lyrebirds created a real song and dance in the media (see News link). Detailed analysis of video and audio of superb lyrebirds dancing in the wild shows that they coordinate a repertoire of songs with a repertoire of dance moves. We speculate that these dances are challenging to perfect, and could form a target of selection during female mate choice.

Past Lab members

  • Ansell, Dean. (Honours 2004) Song and song matching in the white-browed scrubwren
  • Crowley, Camille. (Honours 1992). Status signalling in the Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa)
  • Detto, Tanya. (Honours 2002; co-supervised with Jochen Zeil). Use of colour in signalling in the semephore crab
  • Ebert, Daniel. (PhD 2004) Social behaviour and breeding biology of the yellow-rumped thornbill
  • Gardner, Janet. (PhD 2002) Social behaviour and breeding biology of the speckled warbler, and Post-doctoral Research Associate (2006-2008)
  • Hall, Michelle. (Honours 1992; PhD 2001; Visiting Fellow.). Antiphonal duetting and reproductive strategies in magpie larks
  • Hingee, May. (Honours 2008-2009). Wing-whistle of crested pigeons
  • Horn, Andy. (Visiting Fellow 2000). Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Canada
  • Krebs, Elsie. (PhD 1999). Breeding biology and parental care in crimson rosellas
  • Leavesley, Adam. (Honours 2003 with University Medal). The information conveyed in the alarm calls of white-browed scrubwrens
  • Leedman, Ashley. (Honours 1994; PhD 2000). Brood division and post-fledging parental care in the White-browed Scrubwren
  • Leonard, Marty. (Sabbatical Visiting Fellow 2000) Professor, Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada
  • Loiterton, Stephen. 1994. (Honours). Foraging behaviour in antlion larvae (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae)
  • Nicholls, James. (Honours 1998 with University Medal; co-supervised with Michael Double and David Rowell). The evolution of breeding behaviour in the thornbills Acanthiza (Aves: Pardalotidae)
  • Parks, Emily. (Visiting Fellow 2002). Ecological acoustics of scrubwrens
  • Percy, Diana. (Visiting Fellow 2001) Psyllid acoustics
  • Pitcher, Ben. (Honours 2005; Research Assistant 2006-2009) Pattern calls and neighbour recognition in the white-browed scrubwren
  • Platzen, Dirk. (PhD 2004) Parent-nestling vocal interactions in the white-browed scrubwren
  • Rogers, Amy. (Visiting Fellow 1998). Cooperative breeding in scrubwrens
  • Scarl, Judith (Visiting Fellow 2002 and 2006-2008; PhD candidate at Cornell University). Acoustic communication and breeding strategies in galahs
  • Slagsvold, Tore. (Sabbatical Visiting Fellow 2000). Professor, Biology Institute, University of Oslo, Norway
  • Whittingham, Linda. (Post-doctoral Research Associate 1992-93). The mating system and cooperative breeding of white-browed scrubwrens
  • Yezerinac, Stephen. (Post-doctoral Research Associate 1995-97) The mating system and cooperative breeding of white-browed scrubwrens.

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