Mama bird tells babies to shut up, danger is near

White-browed scrubwrens consider their audience and the threat when sounding alarm calls.

Benjamint444/Wikimedia Commons

Sending up the alarm when a predator approaches seems like a good idea on the surface. But it isn’t always, because such warnings might help the predator pinpoint the location of its next meal. So animals often take their audience into account when deciding whether or not to warn it of impending danger. And a new study in Biology Letters finds that the vulnerability of that audience matters, at least when we’re talking about baby birds and their parents.

Tonya Haff and Robert Magrath of Australian National University in Canberra studied a local species, the white-browed scrubwren, by setting up an experiment to see if parents’ reactions to predators changed when the babies were more vulnerable. Baby birds are vulnerable pretty much all the time but more so when they’re begging for food. That whining noise can lead a predator right to them. But a parent’s alarm call can shut them right up.

Haff and Magrath began by determining that parent scrubwrens would respond normally when they heard recordings of baby birds. (They used recordings because those are more reliable than getting little chicks to act on cue.) Then they played those recordings or one of background noise near scrubwren nests. The role of the predator was played by a taxidermied pied currawong, with a harmless fake crimson rosella (a kind of parrot) used as a control.

The mama and papa birds called out their “buzz” alarm more often when the pied currawong was present and the baby bird recording was being played. They barely buzzed when the parrot was present or only background noise was played. The parents weren’t alarm calling more just to be heard over the noise, the researchers say. If that were the case, then a second type of call — a contact “chirp” that mamas and papas give when approaching a nest — should also have become more common, which it didn’t. These results show that bird “parents can synthesize information on current nestling behaviour and predation risk to reduce short-term changes in offspring vulnerability,” Haff and Magrath write in their paper.

This might not seem like a big deal. You might think that all parents would consider a baby’s vulnerability when taking actions that would affect their offspring. But most studies of this type of communication and behavior have been done on primates. If a bird species also does this, then the behavior “is probably widespread,” the researchers say, and many other animals also consider audience vulnerability when deciding whether the risk is worth making the alarm call.

Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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