Embryonic learning of vocal passwords in superb fairy-wrens reveals intruder cuckoo nestlings

Diane Colombelli-Négrel, Mark E. Hauber, Jeremy Robertson, Frank J. Sulloway, Herbert Hoi, Matteo Griggio, Sonia Kleindorfer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do parents recognize their offspring when the cost of making a recognition error is high [1-3]? Avian brood parasite-host systems have been used to address this question because of the high cost of parasitism to host fitness. We discovered that superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) females call to their eggs, and upon hatching, nestlings produce begging calls with key elements from their mother's "incubation call." Cross-fostering experiments showed highest similarity between foster mother and nestling calls, intermediate similarity with genetic mothers, and least similarity with parasitic Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo (Chalcites basalis) nestlings. Playback experiments showed that adults respond to the begging calls of offspring hatched in their own nest and respond less to calls of other wren or cuckoo nestlings. We conclude that wrens use a parent-specific password [4] learned embryonically to shape call similarity with their own young and thereby detect foreign cuckoo nestlings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2155-2160
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 20 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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