How to teach wild Australian birds a new language

Professor Robert Magrath. Image: ANU

Australian biologists have succeeded in helping wild birds to understand a new language.

Fairy wrens learnt to flee, after only two days of training, when they heard an alarm call previously foreign to them.

The research, led by biologists at the Australian National University (ANU), could be used to help train captive animals to recognise signals of danger before being released into the wild.

“The first bird we tested lived on the ANU campus near my office,” says Professor Robert Magrath. “There was general disbelief and excitement when the bird learned the task perfectly.”

Many animals get information about danger by eavesdropping on each other but how they do it has been a puzzle.

“Recognising other species’ calls is a remarkable ability, because there are lots of species in a natural community, and lots of different types of calls,” Magrath says. “It’s like understanding multiple foreign languages.”

The biologists trained the fairy wrens by playing unfamiliar sounds, while throwing a model glider of a predatory bird, a currawong or a sparrowhawk, over them.

After only eight playbacks the birds learned to flee. They did not flee when played unfamiliar sounds that had not been paired with the gliders.

The research is on the cover of the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

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