lyrebird

Justin Welbergen

No need for males: Female lyrebirds evolved their own complex calls

You might have seen a video from David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds series where a male superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) attempts to lure a mate by imitating a smorgasbord of bird calls and even chainsaws. As nature’s show-offs, male animals tend to have more elaborate colors and courtship behaviors than their female counterparts, so it’s typical that the male would get the public’s attention. The same is true in science: Plenty of female birds sing songs, but researchers have in the past often dismissed them as simply being evolutionary tag-alongs of the males’ “come hither” calls. Now, by recording the calls of female superb lyrebirds, researchers have found that they can keep up with the boys just fine. According to a study published this week in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the females collectively imitated 19 other species of birds, and also sang lyrebird-specific songs. And they changed their songs depending on context, using more lyrebird-specific “whistle” calls when out foraging and vying for territory, but more mimicking calls when defending their nests (as in the audio file below). The fact that the females change their type of call depending on the context makes it likely that these songs evolved in their own right—and the males’ calls aren’t so special after all. Plus, that part about the chainsaw? It probably doesn’t even happen in the wild.

Dalziell and Welbergen 2016 (CC BY 4.0)