These birds use song to keep their mates from straying

About 90% of bird species live in monogamous pairs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t fool around on the side. The females of most monogamous species breed with outside males at least occasionally. Male birds have evolved two main ways to combat such cuckoldry: They either aggressively drive away rival males, or they cement the pair bond by singing lovely duets with their partners. Which works better, making love or making war? Researchers working with the red-backed fairywren (Malurus melanocephalus), native to Australia, put the question to the test by conducting the experiment in the video above. The team mounted a taxidermically stuffed male fairywren on a branch (upper left) in a male-female pair’s territory and then observed what happened. In this case, the live male attacks its artificial rival once, but then spends most of the next minute duetting with its female partner (who is light gray and white). The researchers analyzed data from various trials involving up to 51 males, using parameters such as how long they delayed before attacking the artificial mount, how long before beginning a duet, and how many duets they sang with the females. These data were then correlated with genetic paternity tests of 186 offspring in the nests of the supposedly monogamous birds. Although the percentage of cuckoldry was high—47% of the offspring had been fathered by outside males—those males that quickly responded to the threat of a rival by repeatedly duetting with their partners were much more likely to be the fathers of the offspring in their nests, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. On the other hand, there was no correlation between how aggressive the males were to the artificial rival and the paternity rate, the researchers found.

(Video credit: Daniel Baldassarre)

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