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Foe-Foiling Fairywrens

July 8, 2013

Young Australian birds learn who their enemies are by watching their parents.



Foe-foiling fairywrens. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Superb fairywrens attack a mounted cuckoo. (William Feeney)

Australian birds called superb fairywrens learn to recognize their enemies by watching their elders. Their arch-nemesis is Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo, which lays its eggs in their nests, pawning off all of its parental care to them. Adult fairy-wrens attack the cuckoos when they try to lay their eggs, according to Australian National University behavioral ecologist William Feeney.

WILLIAM FEENEY (Australian National University):

Fairy-wrens are really aggressive towards adult cukoos, so they alarm a lot…

(Fairywren alarm calls)

…and they try to peck its eyes out and these sorts if things.


But he says adolescent fairy-wrens have never seen cuckoos before and don’t respond aggressively. In an experiment, Feeney and his colleagues showed that it’s only after the young birds witness their parents attacking cuckoos that they, too, become hostile toward the intruders.


After one experience they can really rapidly learn to identify and respond to a threat.


I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

The study appears in the journal Current Biology.

Fairywrens attack a stuffed cuckoo in a cage. (William Feeney)