Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Head banging to bird song

By Tegan Dolstra

Can different bird species understand what each other are saying?

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Within the grounds of Canberra’s Australian National Botanic Gardens, entire conversations are taking place, unintelligible to the human ear. A cacophony of bird song fills the air, from the delicate trill of the wren, to the raucous squawk of cockatoos.

Trevor Murray of the Australian National University's Research School of Biology is shedding some light on the remarkable way birds gather information by ‘eavesdropping’ on their neighbouring species’ chitchat.

Understanding other species’ ‘languages’ is sometimes more useful, safe and easy than listening to your own species or sourcing the information yourself.

“The birds all listen to each other,” Trevor explains. “We’ve got this really cool system here in Canberra where we can look at the interactions between Superb fairy-wrens and White-browed scrubwrens, which both give alarm calls when predators fly overhead. As well as fleeing to cover when they hear their own alarm calls, they also respond to the other species’ alarms.”

Trevor wanted to find out just how easily scrubwrens and fairy-wrens listen in on each other.
“There’s this intuitive idea that it’s harder to understand other species: humans can understand one another pretty well, but we can’t really understand what our dogs are saying. We expect it’s the same for birds too,” he says.

After many days playing recordings of...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Australian National University