CIE Seminar Series – 2019: Alarm calls, eavesdropping and deception

SPEAKER: Professor Rob Magrath, Professor of Behavioural Ecology, Australian National University, Canberra

DATE: Friday, 15th November 2019

TIME: 1:30pm

LOCATION: Geelong Campus at Waurn Ponds – room ka4.207

Seminar will also be video linked to the following campuses: Melbourne Campus at Burwood –Burwood Corporate Centre and Warrnambool Campus, Room J2.19 (Fishbowl)


Many species of birds and mammals eavesdrop on the alarm calls of other species, and so gain information on danger but also expose themselves to the risk of deception. First, I consider how animals recognize the meaning of other species’ alarm calls. Contrary to intuition, alarm calls don’t all sound similar and may not be intrinsically scary. Instead, individuals commonly respond to familiar but not unfamiliar alarms, implying learning.

I describe experiments to test for learned recognition by Australian birds, including through social learning. Second, paying attention to the alarm calls of others means that you are vulnerable to deceptive use of alarm calls by those species. This commonly entails individuals giving false alarm calls and then stealing food dropped by victims that have fled. I describe a different context, in which the tiny brown thornbill deceives the much larger pied currawong during attempted nest predation.

Overall, our findings reveal how learning can help explain the widespread eavesdropping networks in natural communities, and allow the complex web of information and deception.


Rob Magrath is a Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the Australian National University. In recent years his group has focussed on studying acoustic communication and eavesdropping in Australian birds.

We’re interested in both the design and function of signals, and have studied communication about danger, parent-offspring communication, vocal mimicry and duetting.

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