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Tonya in tune with the birds

Date

Larissa Nicholson

ANU PhD student Tonya Haff has spent countless hours in the Australian National Botanic Gardens learning the language of birds.

Ms Haff, who graduates on Thursday, wrote a thesis on the way parent white-browed scrubwrens and their offspring communicate when there is danger.

ANU student, Tonya Haff, will graduate with a PHD in evolution, ecology and genetics in a ceremony on Thursday.

ANU student, Tonya Haff, will graduate with a PHD in evolution, ecology and genetics in a ceremony on Thursday. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Ms Haff, who comes from California, had studied birds for years when she decided to study for a PhD, hoping to discover how parent birds warn their young of danger without betraying their nest location to predators.

She found a suitable supervisor at the ANU, moved to Canberra and started work in June 2008. She found white-browed scrubwren nests in the gardens, made recordings of different sounds and played them to baby birds to gauge their reaction.

She discovered parent birds were strategic as to whether or not to call their young to warn them of danger.

The babies learnt there was danger nearby through their parents' calls, but they were also alert to the sounds of their main predator, the pied currawong, approaching, and understood the alarm calls of other bird species. "These little birds are really smart and they're saying a lot, and that really surprised me," Ms Haff said.

She said her research may be used to improve the survival rates of threatened species that had been bred in captivity and later reintroduced into an area.

In many cases the reintroduced birds were quickly eaten by predators, perhaps because they had not learnt the alarm calls of other local species.

"We can maybe help the success rate of the introduction programs by training animals before we let them go to the sounds that are relevant to them in their new environment," she said.

Ms Haff hopes to continue studying the white-browed scrubwren, to discover whether parent birds used specific calls to warn their offspring of different types of threats, including snakes and cuckoos.

More than 2400 ANU students will graduate at Llewellyn Hall this week.

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