Lyrebirds not only imitators but composers | Defender of the Great Lakes

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Mate-seeking male lyres may use their mimicry to “compose” songs to serenade females during breeding season. Research by the University of Western Sydney has found that landbirds renowned for their ability to imitate can also “compose” songs from the sounds they hear in their environment. Lead researcher and PhD student Fiona Backhouse explains that lyrebirds are a bit like hip-hop artists, using sounds produced by other birds to compose new songs by putting them together in sequences. Many bird species organize their songs into sequences, but little is known about the drivers of this sequence structure, including with lyrebird mimicry. “We have established that each population has a characteristic song sequence, where individual males sing the same song sequence multiple times during the breeding season with only minor variations,” she said. “His neighbors will sing a very similar song sequence, but there are differences between populations,” Ms Backhouse said. On average, the study found that the similarity between the sequences a man sings was 40.7% – a figure significantly higher than expected by chance. The study found that the lyrebirds copied sequences from their neighbors – who also copied sequences from others. “This then provides the ingredients for a ‘phone game,’ in which changes in sequence structure evolve across the species’ range,” the study says. “This process is similar to how geographic differences appear in human communication.” The songs were sung with high acoustic contrast, suggesting that the sequence structure was a way to enhance perceptions of male lyrebird repertoire. “The Lyrebirds seem to compose their song sequences to maximize the drama…so that consecutive samples are as radically different as possible.” This seems like a great way to give the listener the best and fastest impression of the virtuosity of male mimicry.” Previously, lyrebirds and other vocal mimics were thought of as “passive” mimicry – like a recorder simply reproducing what they heard. “This research shows that lyrebirds actually use their mimicry to “compose” long and complex songs, all with the aim of appealing to their female listeners. “Study of male Albert’s Lyrebirds in Bundjalung Country, eastern Australia, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Australian Associated Press

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