The Loh Down On Science

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Talk about singing for your supper--literally.

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Meet Australia’s Malurus cyaneus, or “superb fairy wren.”  It’s a tiny bird with a big problem!

Fairy wrens are a favorite target of cuckoos.  Sneaky cuckoo parents lay eggs in other birds’ nests. Cuckoo eggs tend to hatch before fairy wren eggs. Then cuckoo chicks push wren eggs out of the nest! This leaves unsuspecting fairy wren parents to raise cuckoos instead of wrens!

Enter ornithologist Sonia Kleindorfer of Australia’s Flinders University. She noticed that cuckoos don’t always get away with this. Why?

While examining videos of nesting wrens, Kleindorfer saw mama wrens apparently singing to their unhatched eggs. Each mama sang her own unique song.

Once the eggs hatched? Wren chicks chirped mom’s incubation song! Any hatchlings that didn’t know mom’s song?  Interlopers!  Fairy wren parents then only fed chicks who knew the secret song. 

Or, as we like to say, for fairy wrens, singing to eggs isn’t crazy.  It’s a way of making sure their babies don’t become cuckoo!  Sorry.

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena, California. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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