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Song sharing and repertoire change as indicators of social structure in the Noisy Scrub-bird

Berryman, Abby N. (2007) Song sharing and repertoire change as indicators of social structure in the Noisy Scrub-bird. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The Endangered Noisy Scrub-bird is a small passerine that is seldom seen but often heard in its range on the south coast of Western Australia. The difficulties in observing this cryptic bird mean that little is known about its social system. The loud, conspicuous territorial song of the male provides a convenient, non-intrusive means by which to study this species.

The aim of this project was to investigate the patterns of song sharing and repertoire change in the Noisy Scrub-bird to provide indications of the social structure. It was found that groups of up to ten territorial males shared the same set of about five song types. Song groups were discrete, with members of a song group sharing most, if not all, of their song types. Males from different song groups had no song types in common.

Repertoire change was rapid and, with the exception of one individual, was found in every territorial male studied in the Mt Gardner population. It occurred simultaneously in all members of a song group, with males making the same changes to their shared songs. The source of repertoire change was mainly modification of existing song types with occasional divergence of a single song type into two distinct song types, as well as some innovation providing new song types. The average life of a song type was approximately 6 months. Although some song types persisted for the entire 16 month sampling period, they were continually modified and a year later could no longer be recognised as the same type.

Translocation of eight male scrub-birds to the Porongurup National Park provided an opportunity to combine individuals that initially did not share any songs. This allowed the process of song group formation to be studied. Within a one to two month period these males altered their songs so that they shared with their new neighbours. There was some evidence that the songs of dominant males were copied. Observation of the population established on Bald Island by translocation confirmed that there were no appreciable long-term effects on the songs of translocated Noisy Scrub-birds. Song group size, repertoire size and levels of song sharing were very similar to those found in the Mt Gardner population.

The striking feature of Noisy Scrub-bird song groupings was their discreteness and cohesiveness even in the presence of continual repertoire change. It is suggested that each song group consists of a dominant male whose songs are more attractive to females and/or effective in territory defence. This dominant male is surrounded by subordinate males that copy his effective songs. Repertoire change can be explained by the dominant male continually making changes to his songs, with the other males copying these changes to retain their mimicked effectiveness. Each song group may in fact represent a dispersed lek. The scenario suggested to explain Noisy Scrub-bird song groupings bears striking similarities to the hotshot hypothesis to explain lek formation whereby males cluster around a successful male.

This study demonstrates the potential of using song to investigate aspects of the social system of a species which is otherwise very difficult to observe. Management of an Endangered species such as the Noisy Scrub-bird will always benefit from increased knowledge about their social system. For example, this study showed that taking males from different song groups for translocation probably has little impact on their success at the new site because of their ability to rapidly alter their songs to form new song groups. An additional benefit of regularly monitoring the songs of translocated males was that it allowed ongoing identification of individuals, even though their songs were continually changing.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology
Supervisor(s): Calver, Michael and Wooller, Ron
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