Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

Birds provide an ideal subject of research for a variety of fundamental biologic questions. Bird song for example resembles human language in many ways. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen want to find out how bird song has developed through learning process and what role neuronal principles and hormones play in this process. Furthermore they study the evolution of partner selection and loyalty of partners. Why do individuals differ in their mating behaviour and how does this affect their reproductive success, are examples of questions, that they search the answers for. At the Radolfzell Ornithological Station, a sub-institute, scientists research bird and other animal migration behaviour: how do animals get from one place to another and how do they survive? All data are being collected in an international database to be able to combine them and to do long term studies. Those data can be important for the humans in that aspect that birds and insects often spread diseases.


82319 Seewiesen
Phone: +49 8157 932-0
Fax: +49 8157 932-209

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):

IMPRS for Organismal Biology

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Department Behavioural Neurobiology


Department Behavioural Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics

Hearing in 3D

Hearing in 3D

April 23, 2019

In order to recognize spatial structures, bat echolocation uses similar cues as our sense of sight

First evidence for joint attention skills in a nonhuman cooperative breeding species

A cooperatively breeding bird species (Arabian babblers) demonstrates distinct hallmarks of joint-attentional skills, which have been traditionally ascribed to humans only. This result also shows that an ape-like cognitive system is not a necessary pre-condition for joint-attention skills.

Does parenting hamper the sex life of male black coucals?

In the black coucal sex-roles are reversed: females aggressively defend their territories and males rear the young. Despite the large effort for parental care, males still find opportunities to sire young in nests of other males, although only succeed half as often as males who are “free” and do not have to tend a brood.

Rainfall and temperature predict bird colouration on a global scale

In regions with high rainfall and cold temperatures, most birds have dark plumage colours.

A deeper look inside the sleeping bird brain

Similarities and differences between avian and mammalian sleep and possibly memory consolidation


Until recently, following the crowd was not seen as a desirable goal in life. These days, however, everyone is talking about swarm intelligence. But are swarms really smarter than individuals? And what rules, if any, do they follow? With the help of new computational techniques, Iain Couzin from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell imposes order on the seeming chaos of swarms.

For humans, even a brief bout of sleepiness while driving can have fatal consequences. Frigatebirds, on the other hand, can snooze while cruising through the air without crashing to the ground. What’s more, they generally get by on very little sleep during their long flights over the open ocean, which can last for days. A team of scientists working with Niels Rattenborg at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen has demonstrated for the first time that birds can fly in sleep mode.

From the tropical rainforest to the urban jungle, birds have conquered many habitats on our planet – and they sing in nearly all of them. Henrik Brumm at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen studies how they use song to communicate with each other. He has taken a particular liking to one extraordinarily talented singer.

During language acquisition, gestures seem vital to learning how to speak. They help us emphasize and structure what we say. Simone Pika from the Humboldt Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen wants to know whether gestures were an evolutionary precursor of human language and how they develop. To investigate this question, the researcher studies the communication strategies of great apes in natural environments, but also corvids and human infants.

A Four-Legged Early-Warning System

Environment & Climate

In many parts of the world, goats are important suppliers of milk, meat and hides. However, Martin Wikelski, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, has very different plans for these modest animals: he wants to use them to predict volcanic eruptions.

Bilingual secretary (m/f/i)

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen May 22, 2019

1 PhD position (m/w/d)

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen May 15, 2019

Sleeping on the wing

2018 Rattenborg, Niels C.

Behavioural Biology Ecology Microbiology Neurosciences Physiology

For centuries, people have wondered whether birds sleep on the wing during long, non-stop flights. However, until recently there was no direct evidence for sleep in flight. Measuring the brain activity of frigatebirds in the wild showed that these birds can sleep with either one cerebral hemisphere at a time or both hemispheres simultaneously. Despite being able to engage in all types of sleep in flight, the birds slept less than an hour a day, a mere fraction of the time spent sleeping on land.


Individual shrinking and regrowth as a winter adaption in high-metabolic mammals

2017 Dechmann, D.K.M.; Hertel, M.; Wikelski, M.

Behavioural Biology Ecology Physiology

Skull and body size usually don't change anymore in fully-grown animals. Red-toothed shrews (Sorex spp.) are a notable exception: they shrink in anticipation of the winter and regrow in preparation for reproduction. This process affects the brain, several other major organs, bones and also the cognitive abilities. The phenomenon is also found in weasels, which share many life history traits, especially an exceedingly high metabolism. The study is important for our understanding of evolution, and has profound implications for medical research.


How sex hormones regulate birdsong

2016 Dittrich, Falk; Frankl-Vilches, Carolina; Ko, Meng-Ching; Diales da Rocha, Mariana; Leitner, Stefan; Gahr, Manfred

Behavioural Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Genetics Neurosciences Physiology

Species-specific seasonal changes of bird song, that are caused by sex hormones, can be a consequence of distinct gene expression patterns induced in the song control system. In songbirds, different sex hormone activities are based on divergent genomic regulatory mechanisms. However, neuronal wiring of the songbird as well as mammalian brain is modified by sex hormones via to some extent comparable cellular processes.


Why females cheat with old males

2015 Schroeder, Julia

Behavioural Biology Ecology Physiology

Anisogamy leads to females being expected to be the choosier sex. However, when females cheat on their social partners, they seek males as mates that are older than their social partner but with whom they produce offspring of lower fitness. This is what a team around researchers of the MPI for Ornithology found in house sparrows. Also, old mothers produced daughters of low fitness compared to young mothers. These findings are important, as this patterns has been found to a limit also in humans. Thus, with increasing age of reproduction we may pass on the costs of this to the next generation.


Genes and environment: how do they influence behaviour and physiology of songbirds?

2014 Leitner, Stefan

Behavioural Biology Ecology Evolutionary Biology Neurosciences Physiology

Environmental factors can have a large impact on behaviour and the underlying physiology. For example, island canaries advance the onset of breeding in response to growing plants. In zebra finches both song and the song control regions in the brain show low heritability but are highly sensitive to changes of the environment. In contrast, brain size largely depends on the interaction between genes and the environment. In this way additive genetic variation is maintained. These results emphasize the major importance of environmental factors for vocal learning and neural development in songbirds.

Go to Editor View