Female finches are picky but pragmatic when choosing a mate

Female zebra finches are choosy, but also flexible when it comes to finding a mate. As a result, they avoid fitness losses if they are too picky when there is a lot of competition for males. That's what Wolfgang Forstmeier of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen and colleagues report in a new study. They found that some unpaired females lay their eggs in the nests of other pairs. In this way, they still reproduce successfully, even if they are not satisfied with the selection of males.

Proteins of electrical synapses for the production and learning of bird song

Electrical synapses, along with chemical synapses, are the contact points between nerve cells that coordinate the activity of neuronal networks. In a new study, scientists from Seewiesen and LMU Munich have investigated whether in songbirds the production and learning of a complex behavior, their song, can be linked to the synaptic properties of defined neuronal circuits, the so-called vocal control area in the birds' brains. To this end, they studied messenger RNA expression for the protein connexin 36 (Cx36), a typical protein of electrical synpases, in both year-round singing zebra finches and seasonal singing canaries. Electrical synapses were found to be a common and widespread feature in the vocal control areas of songbirds. Thus, songbirds can be considered as a suitable model to study the role of the major vertebrate electrical synapse protein (Cx36) in the production and learning of motor skills.

New Marshmallow-Test in parrots

African grey parrots are more likely to reject an immediate reward with the prospect of a better one than macaws. They may therefore be able to delay a reward longer. This is what scientists led by Auguste von Bayern, head of the group "Comparative Cognition" have found. The birds that distracted themselves kept waiting the longest.


Bird pupils behave unexpectedly different

The pupil not only regulates the amount of light entering the eye, but also reflects the state of the brain: when we are aroused or focused, the pupils dilate. The pupil even changes as mammals sleep, constricting during deep non-REM sleep and dilating in REM sleep. Now, for the first time, researchers of the group "Avian Sleep" at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the Neurosciences Research Center in Lyon have studied pupil behavior in birds. Surprisingly, the exact opposite happens here: During arousal and REM sleep, the pupils become smaller, while they enlarge during non-REM sleep. The unexpected pupillary behavior of birds provides a new window into the sleeping brain.

Song gets attractive with dance

Songbirds often coordinate dance with song in the courtship context. However, little is known about how dance display affects song traits and responses from potential mates. A new study of the department Behavioural Neurobiology revealed that song with dance display is longer and more stereotyped than without dance display in both male and female blue-capped cordon-bleus. Further, song with dance display elicits more responses from the paired partner. Multimodal courtship display combined song and dance plays a vital role in their communication.

Broadcast about current research in Seewiesen in the MDR theme week "Fascination Birds"

Scientists from the Avian Sleep Research Group (Niels Rattenborg), the Behavioral Neurobiology Department (Manfred Gahr) and the Evolutionary Physiology Group (Michaela Hau) explain current research projects in the MDR three-part series "The Secret of Birds" (Part 2 in the ARD Media Library, mostly in German language).

Songbirds like it sweet

Humans can easily identify sweet-tasting foods – and with pleasure. However, many carnivorous animals lack this ability. Whether birds, descendants of meat-eating dinosaurs, can taste sweet was previously unclear. An international team of researchers from Japan, Germany, Hong Kong, the United States and Australia, led by Maude Baldwin, has now shown that songbirds, with more than 4,000 species, recognize sweets regardless of their primary diet. In the journal SCIENCE, the study highlights a specific event in the songbird ancestors that allowed their umami (savory) taste receptor to recognize sugar. This ability has been conserved in the songbird lineage, influencing the diet of nearly half of all birds living today.
Photo: Andy Gee, Macaulay Library #304552631

Sex role has an influence on life span

It is well known that women live longer on average than men. In the rest of the animal kingdom, we also observe gender-specific differences in life span. According to a theory, the reason for this could be sexual selection: The sex that competes for a mate is subject to higher mortality - in most cases the male. Researchers have now studied the life spans of barred buttonquails for the first time. This is one of the few bird species with "reversed" sex roles. While males take care of the brood, females engage in territory defense and mate attraction. Interestingly, in this case, the males outlive the females. Thus, the researchers provide direct evidence corroborating the influence of sexual selection on lifespan.

Urban traffic noise causes song learning deficits in birds

Traffic noise leads to inaccuracies and delays in the development of song learning in young birds. They also suffer from a suppressed immune system, which is an indicator of chronic stress. A new study by research group leader Henrik Brumm and colleagues shows that young zebra finches, just like children, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of noise because of its potential to interfere with learning at a critical developmental stage.

Female snowy plovers are no bad mothers

In snowy plovers, females have overcome traditional family stereotypes. They often abandon the family to begin a clutch with a new partner whereas the males continue to care for their young until they are independent. An international team led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, has now investigated the decision-making process that determines the duration of parental care by females. They found that offspring desertion often occurs either under poor environmental conditions, when chicks die despite being cared for by both parents, or when chicks have a good chance of survival even without the female.

Top address for life science research

Bavaria invests in the competitive development of the Martinsried Max Planck Campus into an outstanding international research hub. Our institute in Seewiesen will - subject to the approval of the Senate - merge with the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology to form a joint new Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence and expand with additional departments in the coming years. Seewiesen is to be retained as an outstation for research in natural environments. 
The Free State of Bavaria intends to fund the project with up to 500 million euros over the next ten years, after approval of the state parliament. Minister President Markus Söder and Max Planck President Martin Stratmann signed a corresponding Memorandum of Understanding on April 29, 2021 in the Max Planck House in Munich.

Blown away: How male pectoral sandpipers look for their next partner

Blog post by PhD student Johannes Krietsch in the Journal of Animal Ecology about a study published in 2020 with pectoral sandpipers in Alaska. The males fly thousands of kilometers through their breeding territory. The researchers wanted to understand whether wind movements opportunistically help to determine the breeding site selection of this polygynous shorebird. Johannes recently won the British Ecological Society Movement Ecology Special Interest Group's MoveMap competition in the "nerdy" category for his visualization of flight movements! Read the full story in his article behind the link.

Improvement of bat protection at wind turbines

In order to assess the risk of bats dying at wind turbines, their acoustic activity is recorded with ultrasonic detectors within the operating range of the rotor blades. In a recent analysis, a team of scientists led by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research with participation of the MPI for Ornithology concludes that supplementary ultrasonic detectors need to be installed at other locations on larger wind turbines and that additional techniques such as radar and thermal imaging cameras need to be developed for monitoring. The results of their analysis are published in the journal Mammal Reviews:

Migratory birds change their diet before long-distance flights to save energy

Migratory birds are small high-performance athletes that have to rely completely on their fat stores during the long distances between breeding and wintering grounds. In a study, scientists from the USA, Poland and our institute wanted to find out which composition of the fatty acids stored in the body is ideal for the long flights. To do this, they placed hand-raised European starlings on different fat diets with monounsaturated (MUFA) or polyunsaturated (PUFA) fatty acids before the birds completed long-distance flights in the MPIO wind tunnel. It was found that the PUFA birds initially consumed less energy, but over the longer term had to cope with more severe oxidative damage than the MUFA animals. The PUFA diet provides a distinct advantage for covering long distances due to the short-term energy savings. To avoid increased oxidative damage, which negatively affects lifespan, migratory birds must adapt their diets by increasing their intake of these special fatty acids only during migration season. Such strategies can also be applied to other vertebrates.

Award for research group leader Michaela Hau

Research group leader Michaela Hau gave this year's Howard Bern Lecture at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). This is a special award for scientists who have done significant research in the field of comparative endocrinology. Michaela Hau is honored for her research on free-living great tits, in which she measures stress hormones (corticosteroids) in response to environmental inputs, and the resultant effects on traits such as reproductive success, metabolic rate, behavior, and flight performance. Her research ultimately aims to evaluate how fast physiological systems can evolve.

Global study on bird song frequency

An analysis of the songs of most of the world’s passerine birds reveals that the frequency at which birds sing mostly depends on body size, but is also influenced by sexual selection. The new study from researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and colleagues suggests that habitat characteristics do not affect song frequency, thereby refuting a long-standing theory.

Clever and Smart: Ravens are on par with Great Apes in cognitive performance

At the age of four months, ravens already show comparable cognitive performance to that of adult great apes. Under the direction of Prof. Dr. Simone Pika, former Humboldt research group leader in Seewiesen, now University of Osnabrück, the first systematic-quantitative large-scale study of the physical and social abilities of common ravens took place, which also included cognitive development. For example, when Dr. Miriam Sima, who raised the ravens in Seewiesen as part of her doctoral research, hid treats under a cup and moved it back and forth between other cups as in a 'shell game,' even young ravens usually tapped the correct cup with their beaks. The study results showed that the ravens were on par with chimpanzees and orang utans at solving problems, particularly those which involved quantities, causal understanding, social learning and communication.

New tool for studying the neural circuits underlying vocal learning in songbirds

Songbirds are among the few animal orders that share with humans the ability to learn vocalizations from a conspecific. The neuronal circuits associated with song and speech learning are complex in structure and function. Now a team of scientists from Seewiesen, Munich, Switzerland and Tokyo has come closer to investigating the neural mechanisms of vocal development: They have developed a method with which they can make these brain circuits visible using a fluorescent dye. A detailed analysis of the structures in the bird's brain is possible within just three days of application, which meets the quick pace of developmental learning. The method can also be used to measure in vivo neuronal activity, as the release of calcium becomes visible when a neuron is firing. The researchers hope that the newly gained differentiability will provide novel and more precise insights into the function and development of these circuits and to further our understanding of associated diseases.

Bart Kempenaers elected as Honorary Fellow of the American Ornithological Society

Director Bart Kempenaers, head of the Department Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics was appointed as honorary member of the world's largest ornithological society. The society thus honors and celebrates his valuable contributions to ornithology and his commitment to science.

Artificial light at night makes moths easy prey for bats

More and more artificial lighting at night has consequences, especially for nocturnal wildlife that is not adapted to such high light levels. This influences many aspects of behavior such as foraging, commuting or mating. Scientists of the Research Group Acoustic and Functional Ecology now show in a new study that artificial light at night can also have fatal effects on moths. Many moth species can hear in the ultrasonic range and make various, often successful, evasive maneuvers in flight when they sense an approaching, hunting bat. Although this predator-prey interaction is triggered by sound, the study shows that a light-polluted night sky can suppress the evasive flight behavior of moths. Even if occasionally last desperate maneuvers are carried out, the artificial light could severely reduce the moths’ capability to avoid bats, and ultimately their survival.
Image © Christophe - stock.adobe.com

Childlessness by circumstance

In birds and other species alike, pairs can face considerable difficulties with reproduction. Scientists of the Department of Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics have now shown in an extensive analysis of 23,000 zebra finch eggs that infertility is mainly due to males, while high embryo mortality is more a problem of the females. Inbreeding, age of the parents and conditions experienced when growing up had surprisingly little influence on reproductive failures.

Copyright drawing: Yifan Pei

Avian tree of life better resolved

Researchers led by Manfred Gahr in Seewiesen have investigated the relationship of bird families. For the first time, they have been able to clarify the relationship of all families of non-passerine birds and almost all families of passerine birds. The new family tree is based on gene sections that do not code for proteins, but contain sequences that are specific to the families and their genera.
Copyright image: André Labetaa

Press releases

Female zebra finches are choosy, but also flexible when it comes to finding a mate. As a result, they avoid fitness losses if they are too picky when there is a lot of competition for males. That's what Wolfgang Forstmeier of the Max Planck Institute ...

African grey parrots are more likely to reject an immediate reward with the prospect of a better one than macaws. They may therefore be able to delay a reward longer than macaws. This is what scientists led by Auguste von Bayern from the Max Planck ...

The pupil not only regulates the amount of light entering the eye, but also reflects the state of the brain: when we are aroused or focused, the pupils dilate. The pupil even changes as mammals sleep, constricting during deep non-REM sleep and ...

Songbirds like it sweet

July 09, 2021

Humans can easily identify sweet-tasting foods – and with pleasure. However, many carnivorous animals lack this ability, and whether birds, descendants of meat-eating dinosaurs, can taste sweet was previously unclear. An international team of ...

Institute seminar series in Seewiesen

Institute seminars on the topic of "biological intelligence" are currently held online as internal events. The program and links to the lectures can be found on our intranet MAX.


Have you ever wondered if we dream for a reason, or if dreams are just meaningless byproducts of evolution? In the new podcast series "Biotopics" by BIOTOPIA - Naturkundemuseum Bayern, Gianina Ungurean of the research group "Avian sleep", led by Niels Rattenborg, gives some exciting insights into her findings on how birds sleep. Go listen to the episode, titled "Late-night show in the head: how and why do we dream?" (in German only)

Welcome to Seewiesen! Visit our campus via a video produced by our postdoc Luke Eberhart-Hertel. Giving an overview of our campus, it also briefly shows the lab work and the currently ongoing sleep research on geese.

Since 2019, Bart Kempenaers and his research group have collaborated with local Italian ornithologists to deploy miniaturized satellite tags on Eurasian Dotterels passing through the Alps in an effort to understand the species' migratory routes and scheduling. The footage shown here was taken during the 2019 field campaign in August.

African grey parrots exhibit a high level of social intelligence and cooperativeness. They readily help others, even when there is no immediate opportunity for reciprocation. Moreover, they reciprocate received favours and do not appear jealous, if conspecifics obtain a better reward than themselves. This further supports that they have evolved a level of intelligence comparable to that of great apes, crows and dolphins.

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