[Wednesday Talks]: “Vocal mimicry in birds: Sincere flattery or devious deception?”

NIAS Wednesday Discussion Meeting


Topic: “Vocal mimicry in birds: Sincere flattery or devious deception?”

Speaker: Dr. Samira Agnihotri

DST-SERB National Post-Doctoral Scholar,

Ecology, Behaviour and Conservation Programme, NIAS


Chairperson: Prof. Anindya Sinha

Professor and Dean, Academic Affairs,

School of Natural Sciences and Engineering, NIAS


Date: 6th April, 2016

Time: 9.30 am

Venue: Lecture Hall, NIAS

All are cordially invited

 * * *

Abstract:  The diversity and variety in birdsong continue to generate interest amongst ornithologists, but many questions remain unresolved. For instance, why do some species sing hundreds of different songs while others use simple, stereotyped ones for the same purpose? Why do some birds learn not only their own species’ song, but also the songs of other species? There has been a recent surge of interest in this intriguing phenomenon of ‘avian vocal mimicry’. Despite having several species of birds that are known to produce mimicry, there is a dearth of research on this field in India. The greater racket-tailed drongo’s loud song and ability to mimic other species of birds with great accuracy has drawn the attention of many birdwatchers, yet we know little about what drives this mimicry in the wild. I pursued these birds for several years trying to answer some of these questions. The results from my research show that greater racket-tailed drongos use mimicry in a flexible manner according to the intended audience. They appear to use two different sets of mimicked calls with distinct syntax, directed at conspecifics (other racket-tailed drongos) and heterospecifics (other species) respectively, the former as territorial song and the latter to attract other species. In this talk, I discuss the implications of these findings, and attempt to explore the unique parallels between birdsong and human speech, especially within the domain of vocal mimicry.


About the speaker: A Master’s degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore gave Dr Samira Agnihotri the chance to step into the realm of birdsong, and nothing makes her more contented than walking a forest with a microphone and recorder. Her Master's degree resulted in a bilingual (English and Kannada) CD that contains recordings of more than a 100 species of birds. These recordings were made in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve in southern Karnataka, where she then pursued greater racket-tailed drongos for her doctoral research.  Samira is also interested in conservation education, and in exploring different ways to popularise the ecological sciences as well as encourage and aid in the preservation of traditional knowledge systems. Finally, her long-term interests lie in the application of linguistics to the study of birdsong.  Samira has just joined the Ecology, Behaviour and Conservation Programme of NIAS as a DST-SERB National Post-Doctoral Scholar and intends to continue her work on avian vocal mimicry, with a special focus on its cognitive basis.


* * * * * *

Wednesday, April 6, 2016