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Alarm Call Mimics

June 9, 2015

A tiny Australian bird sets off false alarms to fool predators.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Steve Igic Pied Currawong2

This pied currawong gets distracted when it hears fake alarm calls. (Steve Igic)

When “crying wolf” actually works. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Pied currawongs are crow-like Australian birds that predate upon the nests of tiny brown thornbills to feed their own growing babies. But the smaller birds don’t sit idly by and watch this happen. Instead, they make a ruckus, mimicking the calls other birds make when they see a hawk.

(SFX: Brown thornbill vocal mimicry chorus)

This startles the currawongs, who either look up to scan the sky for danger, or flee the scene of the crime, allowing the thornbills’ babies to escape to safety. Behavioral ecologist Branislav Igic experimentally tested the predators’ reactions while at Australia National University.

BRANISLAV IGIC (Australia National University, now at University of Akron):

It’s the first example of an animal species using alarm calls, or any alarm signal to fool a predator.

HIRSHON:

The study appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Susanne Bard

brown thornbills calls

Tiny brown thornbills mimic the alarm calls of many other species when pied currawongs attack their nests. (Steve Igic)