Male lyrebirds mimic mobbing flocks when having sex

Alex Maisey

When birds spot a predator, they get loud. They’ll call out noisily, getting other birds to join in, and sometimes even mob whatever beast is threatening them. But one bird makes these noises all by itself. Australia’s male superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae), renowned for its complex vocal mimicry, has now been found to imitate the many layered sounds of a mobbing flock when it’s wooing a female mate.

Scientists didn’t set out to capture this imitation. They were recording the mating songs of 11 males in the Sherbrooke Forest of southeastern Australia when they suddenly heard the sounds of a mobbing flock—coming straight out of the pheasant-size songbirds.

Experimentally induced, mixed-species mobbing flock

Dalziell et al.

In the recording above, you can hear a mobbing flock, comprised of birds of many species calling out in the face of a predator. Then, you can hear a single male lyrebird give a nearly pitch-perfect imitation of the mob’s coos and clucks. The males made the mobbing sounds only during copulation, or when females decided to “break off” early from the interaction, the team reports today in Current Biology.

Male lyrebird imitating a mobbing flock during copulation

Dalziell et al.

The researchers don’t know for sure why the lyrebirds make such elaborate vocalizations, and they plan to probe this in further studies. One idea is that the mirage of a mobbing flock might trick a weary female into thinking a predator is near, leading her back into the male’s open wings.

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