For my PhD, I am studying how birds communicate about danger and how individuals integrate this information from different sources, using New Holland honeyeaters (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae) in the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra. New Holland honeyeaters produce distinctive alarm calls that are attended to by a wide range of species in the community, which makes them a good, and ecologically relevant, system for studying avian alarm communication. They are a wonderfully tractable system for observations, playbacks and model presentations to investigate these issues in wild birds. My research is supervised by Prof. Nick Davies from the University of Cambridge and Prof. Rob Magrath from the Australian National University, and it is funded by a NERC studentship.
I grew up on the slopes of Table Mountain beneath sunburned purple skies in a garden where scorpions sheltered beneath tree bark, tortoises ambled through a tangle of knee-high grass, herons snacked in the fishpond, sunbirds glittered metallically amongst the ericas, and the sombre bulbul was always the last bird to get out of bed. Exploring this wild paradise left me with a passion for nature that brought me to the University of Cambridge for an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences.
After completing my degree, I travelled to the outback of Australia to work as a field assistant on chestnut-crowned babblers in 2010 and to the forests of Switzerland to help out with research on the resident great tits in 2011. Together, these positions helped me gain practical experience in carrying out field research that proved invaluable when I commenced my research-based masters at the University of Bristol.
For my masters research, I investigated parent-offspring communication in the white-browed scrubwren under the supervision of Dr Andy Radford at the University of Bristol and Prof. Rob Magrath at ANU. I used a combination of observational data and playback experiments to study the use of provisioning calls given by adult scrubwrens during feeds at the nest from the perspective of both the adults and their offspring. I completed my masters in 2013 and was awarded a Commendation of Excellence by the Faculty of Science at Bristol for my thesis.
Following my masters, I worked as a research assistant for Prof. Rob Magrath at ANU. We conducted an experiment on learning in wild birds in which we trained superb fairy-wrens to recognize that a novel sound signals danger by using a series of playbacks combined with presentations of gliding model predators. I also aided Dr Brani Igic in carrying out a playback experiment testing the effect of brown thornbill mimicry on their nest predators, the pied currawong.
Magrath, R. D., Haff, T. M., McLachlan, J. R., & Igic, B. (2015). Wild birds learn to eavesdrop on heterospecific alarm calls. Current Biology, 25(15), 2047-2050.
Igic, B., McLachlan, J., Lehtinen, I., & Magrath, R. D. (2015). Crying wolf to a predator: deceptive vocal mimicry by a bird protecting young. Proc. R. Soc. B (Vol. 282). The Royal Society.