New research: Lyrebirds match songs to specific dance moves

6/6/2013 | 1

SuperbLyrebird

A Superb Lyrebird holds its wiry tail over its head like a veil. Photo by Alex Maisey.

Superb Lyrebird, a bird found only in the forests of southeastern Australia, dances and sings in ways that any ballerina, Broadway choreographer, or hip-hop dancer could relate to.

Male Superb Lyrebirds “have different dance movements to go with different songs,” says Anastasia Dalziell of Australian National University. “Just as we ‘waltz’ to waltz music but ‘salsa’ to salsa music, so lyrebirds step sideways with their tail spread out like a veil to one song, which sounds like a 1980s video-arcade game, while they jump and flap their wings with their tail in a mohawk position while singing a quiet plinkety-plinkety-plinkety.”

Dalziell and her colleagues describe the coordination of lyrebird songs and dances today in the journal Current Biology. And they note that the research proves that such coordination “is not a uniquely human trait.”

The lyrebirds’ dance movements are a voluntary embellishment to their singing; in other words, they can and do sing without dancing. Sometimes they also make mistakes in their dancing, an observation that suggests to Dalziell and her colleagues that dancing is challenging for the birds, just as it is for lots of us humans.

As much as people love to dance, the activity is even more crucial for the birds. Before they can mate, males must impress females with their dancing skills. They put a lot of work into their dances, Dalziell says, and she points out that they need years of practice before they reach maturity.

In the breeding season, female lyrebirds will visit several different males to watch their song-and-dance routines. Exactly what those females are looking for is still anyone’s guess.

“Sometimes after what seems to me to be a perfectly wonderful display by a male,” Dalziell says, “I watch a female leave and check out his neighbor.”

In this video, she explains in detail the songs and dances that the birds perform together and she shows a wild lyrebird doing its thing. Enjoy. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor