Magrath Group - Behavioural ecology; acoustic communication; ornithology

We have broad interests in behavioural ecology, particularly acoustic communication and breeding biology in birds. Our current work is focussed on communication about danger, eavesdropping among species, and vocal mimicry. See the 'Wildlife Australia' article below, for a non-technical introduction to our work on alarm calls and eavesdropping in avian communities.

In addition to our current projects, we have worked on duetting, brood division, hatching asynchrony, egg size, life-history and cooperative breeding in birds.

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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 Ecology, 33: 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 Behaviour, 148: 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 & Sociobiology71: 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. & R. D. Magrath. 2017. Functionally referential alarm calls in noisy miners communicate about predator behaviour. Animal Behaviour, 129: 171-179.
  • Magrath et al. 2017. Neighbourhood watch: alarm calls and eavesdropping in wild bird communities. Wildlife Australia, Autumn 2017, pp. 6-10.
  • 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.
  • Murray, T. G. & Magrath, R. D. 2015. Does signal deterioration compromise eavesdropping upon other species' alarm calls? Animal Behaviour 108: 33-41.
  • 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. http://
  • 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.
  • 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 Biology46: 289-302. 
  • Dalziell, A. H., Welbergen, J. A., Igic, B. & R. D. Magrath. 2015. Avian vocal mimicry: a unified conceptual framework. Biological Reviews90: 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 Reviews90: 560-586.
  • Igic, B. & Magrath, R. D. 2014. A songbird mimics different heterospecific alarm calls in response to different types of threat. Behavioral Ecology25: 538–548.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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

Tiny birds cry wolf to scare predators

Birds cry wolf to scare predators

Story | Wednesday 3 June 2015
The brown thornbill mimics the hawk warning call of a variety of birds to scare off predators threatening its nest. This deception is captured in the short video 'Birds cry wolf to scare predators'.

ARC Discovery projects and DECRA fellowships

Story | Monday 17 November 2014

To call or not to call

Story | Monday 21 October 2013

Humans aren't alone in grooving to the music

Story | Tuesday 11 June 2013

What a lark: birds of a feather sing together

Story | Friday 22 June 2012

Babysitting birds gain from growing pains

Story | Monday 2 May 2011
The baffling question of why some animals help raise offspring which aren't their own is closer to being answered, thanks to new research from The Australian National University.

Noisy youngsters pay the ultimate price

Story | Wednesday 9 February 2011

E&E PhD Exit Webinar: Using information from others: social learning and predator avoidance eavesdropping

Event | Fri 6 August 2021
Using information adaptively is crucial to survival. Accordingly, animals have evolved sensory and cognitive systems for detecting and processing information, including from other individuals.
Recorded EE Seminar Rowell

E&E PhD Exit Seminar: Fear and Learning on the Yarra: Predator Awareness Training in the critically endangered Helmeted Honeyeater

Event | Fri 21 August 2020
Captive breeding and reintroduction are key to modern conservation, but high predation in recently released animals means reintroductions often fail.