Male Lyrebirds Match Elaborate Dances with Particular Songs to Woo Mates

The superb lyrebird of southern Australia—renowned for its remarkable imitative abilities—is once again being lauded for its performance skills. This time, it’s not the bird’s incredible songs but rather its dance moves that are of note. A study published today in Current Biology shows that males of these large, forest-dwelling birds perform choreographed dance steps that match specific songs from their extensive repertoire. The male’s dance is part of a display to convince the ladies that he’s good mating material.

While there are plenty of examples of male bird species that try to win the affections of females through elaborate displays, this study is the first to correlate particular groups of songs with specific dance movements. Unlike some birds whose displays actually produce the associated sounds, these fellas can—and do—perform the vocalizations without the dance. They don’t need to dance in order to make their calls. And with more than a hundred vocalizations at their disposal, the fact that males only performed these dance steps while singing those particular four songs indicates that the combination is no accident.

Anastasia Dalziell, the lead author on the study from Australian National University, explains that these birds are doing something similar to what we do: “We have a repertoire of music and we have a repertoire of dance moves,” she says.  “We waltz to waltz music, but we salsa to salsa music. So we have to learn what sounds are associated with which movements, and then have to coordinate them.”

A male superb lyrebird (Photo by Alex Maisey)

For lyrebirds, their display involves four distinct song types (including one that Dalziell –dead-on—describes as sounding like “a 1980s video arcade game”). The birds sing the songs in a certain order, and perform particular dance moves that correspond with each song type. During the third song type, for example, the bird jumps, bobs, and flaps his wings. (If you haven’t already, be sure to check it out yourself in the video above around the 4:45 mark).

It might seem likely that those with the fanciest footwork have the most luck wooing a mate, but that remains to be seen. Females of some birds, like the golden-collared manakin, can perceive timing differences on the order of milliseconds. When the male lyrebirds make mistakes—like mismatching the song and dance that are supposed to be paired—do females notice? Dalziell didn’t tackle that question in this study, but hopes to investigate it in future studies.

However, she’s sure that the females do notice the dances: “This dance display happens just before copulation,” she says. “We learn that these dances clearly play an important role in attracting a mate, but exactly what parts of it she’s looking at, we’re not sure.”

If it seems unfair that the males are putting in a lot of effort while the females hang out and watch them work, fast forward: after the guy cuts a rug and wins his lady, she’s completely on her own when it comes to raising the chicks.


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