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Animals 2018, 8(12), 228;

Development of Meaningful Vocal Signals in a Juvenile Territorial Songbird (Gymnorhina tibicen) and the Dilemma of Vocal Taboos Concerning Neighbours and Strangers

School of Science and Technology, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia
Received: 17 October 2018 / Revised: 26 November 2018 / Accepted: 27 November 2018 / Published: 30 November 2018
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Animal Communication)
Full-Text   |   PDF [5968 KB, uploaded 13 December 2018]   |  

Simple Summary

Ownership of a territory is very important for many vertebrates. Some songbird species, such as the Australian magpie, have all-year-round, not just seasonal, territories. Hence, there is a good deal at stake in holding on to such a territory. It requires vigilance, experience, an excellent memory, and most of all, effective vocal communication. There is a strong relationship between successful territorial ownership, strong social bonds, and the health, survival, even the life-span and overall cognitive development of offspring. Yet, we know next to nothing as to how juveniles acquire their vocal skills and apply these appropriately, including territorial signals. Clearly, juveniles need to learn about territoriality, i.e., learn about potential enemies, recognise which birds are neighbours, and what constitutes an incursion into territory. The results of this extensive field study unexpectedly revealed that juveniles did not use more than half of all the vocalisations adults expressed and they needed a long time (three months post fledging) to distinguish between neighbour and stranger calls, attributing differential importance to each. It also showed that the territorial call was learned but was expected by adults not be used by juveniles, limiting their ability to communicate. A range of other calls associated with territoriality were also not expressed, possibly because only territory owners could do so.


Young territorial songbirds have calls to learn, especially calls that may be vital for maintaining territory. Territoriality is largely reinforced and communicated by vocal signals. In their natal territory, juvenile magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) enjoy protection from predators for 8–9 months. It is not at all clear, however, when and how a young territorial songbird learns to distinguish the meaning of calls and songs expressed by parents, conspecifics, neighbours, and heterospecifics, or how territorial calls are incorporated into the juvenile’s own repertoire. This project investigated acquisition and expression of the vocal repertoire in juvenile magpies and assessed the responses of adults and juveniles to playbacks of neighbour and stranger calls inside their territory. The results reported here identify age of appearance of specific vocalisations and the limits of their expression in juveniles. One new and surprising result was that many types of adult vocalisation were not voiced by juveniles. Playbacks of calls of neighbours and strangers inside the natal territory further established that adults responded strongly but differentially to neighbours versus strangers. By contrast, juveniles needed months before paying any attention to and distinguishing between neighbour and stranger calls and eventually did so only in non-vocal ways (such as referral to adults). These results provide evidence that auditory perception not only includes recognition and memory of neighbour calls but also an assessment of the importance of such calls in the context of territoriality. View Full-Text
Keywords: territoriality; juvenile vocal development; neighbour–stranger discrimination; Australian magpies territoriality; juvenile vocal development; neighbour–stranger discrimination; Australian magpies

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Kaplan, G. Development of Meaningful Vocal Signals in a Juvenile Territorial Songbird (Gymnorhina tibicen) and the Dilemma of Vocal Taboos Concerning Neighbours and Strangers. Animals 2018, 8, 228.

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