The courtship lyre: why male lyrebirds mimic an alarming cue of a predator during sexual encounters

Male Lyrebird with full feathers on show

In new research from the journal Current Biology (opens in a new window), researchers at Western Sydney University in partnership with Cornell University, the University of Wollongong and the Australian National University, have found that male superb lyrebirds create an astonishing acoustic illusion of a flock of alarm-calling birds.

The researchers discovered that male lyrebirds mimic these ‘mobbing’ flocks only during key stages of courtship: during copulation, or when a female attempts to leave a male’s dancing arena without mating. The evidence suggests that males use their deceptive mimicry to prevent females from ending sexual interactions too soon.

Successful lyrebird courtship and copulation. Credit Dalziell et al.

“Darwin suggested that the flamboyant birdsong produced by male songbirds during courtship was the outcome of females’ “taste for the beautiful”, said Dr Anastasia Dalziell, lead author of the research and a visiting researcher at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University.

“But this complex mobbing flock mimicry produced by male lyrebirds – in the absence of a predator – seems to be an attempt to deceive”, Dr Dalziell said.

The researchers were surprised when they first recorded a male mimicking a mixed-species mobbing flock, particularly as they had instead set out to study the male’s more common musical ‘recital’ song.

An adult male superb lyrebird mimicking a mixed species mobbing flock. Credit Dalziell et al.

“Mimicking an entire mobbing flock during key moments of the mating sequence is truly a remarkable feat,” said Dr Justin Welbergen, also at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment and co-author on the research.

“It has surprisingly profound implications for our understanding of the evolution of avian vocalisations.”

Another odd behaviour that they’ve observed is that during copulation, the male lyrebird holds his wings over the female’s head as if to ‘blindfold' her and perhaps prevent her from detecting the male’s deception.

This research opens new avenues for investigation in the quest to understand one of Australia’s most beautiful, mysterious, and iconic native birds.


26 February 2021

David Thompson
Media Officer
0429 951 552