When mating, male lyrebirds reproduce a cacophony of calls usually reserved for when predator is nearby
The male superb lyrebird of Australia is known for its astounding abilities to mimic the songs of other birds and for almost perfectly replicating human-generated sounds such as camera shutters and, sadly, chainsaws. Now, new research finds that these maestros of impersonation sometimes reproduce the sounds of an entire multi-species flock while courting females and during mating, reports Jake Buehler for Science News.
The study, published last week in the journal Current Biology, explains that the male lyrebirds are specifically recreating the sounds a group of birds makes when a predator shows up. When a predator such as a snake or an owl arrives, a so-called “mobbing flock” creates a cacophony of different alarm calls mixed with flapping wing beats as birds try to repel the dangerous interloper.
Per the paper, males tend to deploy this stress-inducing performance when females begin to leave a male’s courtship arena and during the species’ long-lasting bouts of copulation. Crucially, the researchers say no actual predators appeared to be present. The paper’s authors write that this suggests males imitating a mobbing flock could be attempting to deceive the female and keep her from leaving.
“When the female attempts to leave, we think the male is trying to say ‘baby, it’s dangerous outside. Stay here with me!'” Anastasia Dalziell, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Wollongong and the study’s lead author, tells Anna Salleh of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC News).
For the study, researchers recorded 11 male superb lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae) in the Blue Mountains and Sherbrooke Forest in New South Wales, Australia. Their initial plan was simply to study the birds’ mating dances and astounding range of vocal mimicry, but Dalziell and her colleagues noticed something else going on in the recordings.
Dalziell tells ABC News that when a female enters a male’s carefully cleared out display arena, “he does a special song and dance routine of three songs, each associated with a unique set of dance movements.” But if the female was underwhelmed and begins to exit the display arena, the male busts out his best mobbing flock impression. Interestingly, the males also performed their mobbing flock routines while mating with the females.