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.

Currently, the institute hosts two departments and several independent research groups.


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


Pupil size changes in awake and sleeping birds in opposite ways to mammals


Songbird ancestors evolved a new way to taste sugar


Urban traffic noise causes song learning deficits in birds


Bavaria invests up to 500 million euros in the competitive development of the Martinsried Max Planck Campus into an outstanding international research hub


However, their parental care depends on the survival prospects of the chicks


Anna Proß of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology researched the vocal behavior of nightingales in Ghana. Here, she talks about her encounters with venomous snakes, her new fondness for plantains, and she reveals how ornithologists are making the most of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two shadows flit around in the evening light. A bat is chasing after a moth in a wild dance between hunter and prey. For Holger Goerlitz, pursuits like this one are a real thrill. The leader of an Emmy Noether Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen is researching how bats and insects use sound to detect each other.

No zebra finch emerges from the egg as an accomplished singer: each young bird first has to take singing lessons. Songbirds are therefore excellent model organisms for the study of learning processes in vertebrates. Manfred Gahr and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen are conducting research into how various songbird species learn their songs and what happens in their brains during the process.

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.

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Neural control of vocal interactions in zebra finches

2020 Vallentin, Daniela

Behavioural Biology Ecology Neurosciences

During a good conversation we typically rarely interrupt each other. Although we often already know what we want to say, we suppress our own pronunciation until the other person has finished speaking. How does the brain control this behavior? To better understand the mechanisms involved, we took a closer look at the calling behavior of zebra finches and the neural processes taking place. Like humans, zebra finches coordinate their vocalizations depending on the social situation. This interaction is based on a temporally ordered interplay between inhibiting and excitatory neurons.


The neural basis of duet singing – a neurophysiological field study

2019 Susanne Hoffmann, Lisa Trost, Cornelia Voigt, Stefan Leitner, Alena Lemazina, Hannes Sagunsky, Markus Abels, Sandra Kollmansperger, Andries Ter Maat & Manfred Gahr

Behavioural Biology Ecology Neurosciences

Duet singing is a form of social interaction between two individuals which requires the precise interindividual coordination of vocal emissions. How the brain controls this cooperative behavior was so far unknown. Here, the individual vocalizations and the underlying brain activity in free-living pairs of duetting songbirds has been recorded in parallel with novel miniature transmitters. The data revealed that preprogrammed temporal duet patterns in each songbird’s brain were altered by the partner’s vocalizations to enable optimal interindividual coordination during joint singing.


Acoustic invisibility cloaks and pricked-up ears

2018 Goerlitz, Holger R.

Behavioural Biology Ecology

Our sensory systems are our access to the world. In an evolutionary arms race, bats and insects interact as predator and prey based on exclusively acoustic information. Using microphone systems in the lab and field, we investigate which information and sensory strategies bats use for hunting insect prey. To counter the prey’s defence systems, some bats became inaudible for their unsuspecting prey, while other species rely on the prey’s rustling noises or eavesdrop on the foraging calls of other close-by bats.


Sleeping on the wing

2017 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

2016 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.

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