Fairy-wrens teach babies password call for food

By AAP with AG staff 14 November 2012
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Unhatched fairy-wrens learn a unique call so they can be identified by their mother, research says.

FAIRY-WREN MOTHERS TEACH THEIR incubating young a unique call to gain access to food once hatched, a recent study reveals.

Sonia Kleindorfer of Flinders University, Adelaide, says this prenatal learning is an adaptation that allows fairy-wrens to discriminate between their own babies and those of parasitic cuckoos in their nests.

Fairy-wren password song

According to the researchers, the mother begins her incubation call about 10 days after the eggs are laid, and ceases when the first egg hatches.

Females will also teach their mate and any helpers the unique call by singing it to them away from the nest.

“Parents and others attending the nestlings will only feed them if their begging calls contain the learned password,” Sonia says. “Otherwise, the parents simply abandon the nest and start again.”

Unique call a learned bird behaviour

When clutches of eggs were swapped between nests, the nestlings produced begging calls that matched their foster mothers, not their biological mothers. According to Sonia, this is evidence that the passwords have been learned.

Researchers found that parents could be prevented from feeding their babies if a loudspeaker playing the wrong begging call was placed under the nest.

The research was originally published in the online journal Current Biology.