'Baby, it’s dangerous': How male lyrebirds trick females into having more sex

·News and Video Producer
·3-min read

Gaslighting behaviour could be being used by a famously deceptive Aussie bird in order to gain sexual advantage, new research has found.

Male superb lyrebirds, famous for their ability to mimic other complex sounds including chainsaws, kookaburras and even the human voice, appear to have been using their beat-boxing skills to coerce females into mating with them.

By imitating a flock of mobbing birds, the flamboyant males are likely frightening potential mates towards them for protection, a new report from the University of Wollongong has found.

Female lyrebirds are seemingly being tricked by males into mating for longer. Source: Alex Maisey / Dalziell et al. 2021
Female lyrebirds are seemingly being tricked by males into mating for longer. Source: Alex Maisey / Dalziell et al. 2021

The birds are not imitating predators themselves, but rather the alarm calls of other species like eastern yellow robins, which were once known as “snake birds” and used by snake catchers to locate the reptiles.

The study’s lead author, Anastasia Dalziell, said male lyrebirds seem to have been using the technique in two situations — when the female tried to leave the male without copulating, and during the mating act itself.

“It’s a bit like saying, ‘Baby, it’s dangerous out there. Stay here with me,” Dr Dalziell said.

“The stalling tactic might allow for copulation to happen in the first place or last longer, preventing females from leaving before sperm has been successfully transferred.

“In addition to being intriguing, the findings also extend scientists’ traditional understanding of mimicry.

Lyrebird sex lasting longer than other songbirds

A male lyrebirds seen practising his alarm call. Source: Alex Maisey / Dalziell et al. 2021
Male lyrebirds were seen practising their alarm calls while mounting logs. Source: Alex Maisey / Dalziell et al. 2021

Keeping his partner with him for a long period of time appears to be a key part of lyrebird behaviour.

Dr Dalziell said the act of lyrebird sex is notably a much longer process when compared to other songbirds.

“This is another really strange thing that they do,” Dr Dalziell told Yahoo News Australia

“Songbirds almost always copulate for two seconds, it’s usually closer to one.

“It’s quick and silent, and the exciting bit happens before with all those elaborate dances, songs, and wonderful feathers.”

While it’s not known why Lyrebirds last so long, studies on invertebrates have shown long copulations can be associated with males trying to ensure their sperm is successful when females have mated with multiple partners.

Studies on jungle fowl have revealed that mating, even without the transferal of sperm, often results in the females not seeking out other partners after the act.

Lyrebirds could be using another deceptive tactic

Dr Dalziell said many instances of this “sensory trap” were filmed across two distinct populations in Sherbrooke Forest in Victoria and the Blue Mountains in NSW, with the tactic appearing to be standard behaviour.

When males were observed practising their deception, they were seen practising copulation also, by mounting nearby logs.

The deception doesn’t end there, with researchers seeing signs that the male could be blindfolding his lover, to prevent her discovering there are actually no predators around.

Lyrebird sex (pictured) lasts much longer than it does with most other songbirds. Source: Alex Maisey / Dalziell et al. 2021
Lyrebird sex (pictured) lasts much longer than it does with most other songbirds. Source: Alex Maisey / Dalziell et al. 2021

While lyrebirds are on Australia’s 10 cent coin, and have been recorded since sound devices were first brought to Australia, there is still much to be learned about their behaviour.

Despite their tactics being ethically unsound within the human world, Dr Dalziell said we can’t romanticise nature, and we have to let it do its own thing.

“This is their world, it’s what they do,” she said.

“There’s lots of extremely natural and complex behaviour that looks really awful to us in all parts of the animal kingdom.

“It shouldn’t stop us celebrating lyrebirds, it’s really incredible seeing what they can do, and their behaviour gets more and more complicated the more we look.”

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