Dancing Superb Lyrebirds Surprise Ornithologists

Australian biologists have found that male superb lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae) coordinate song with dance as part of an elaborate mating ritual.

Superb Lyrebird at Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria, Australia (Melburnian / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Superb Lyrebird at Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria, Australia (Melburnian / CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Like humans, male superb lyrebirds have different dance movements to go with different songs,” said Anastasia Dalziell of Australian National University, lead author of the study published in the journal Current Biology.

Male lyrebirds sing four different song types (A – D), matching each with a unique set of movements and delivering song and dance types in a predictable sequence.

“While singing song A – which sounds like a 1980s video game – a male lyrebird typically steps sidewise with his tail spread over his head like a veil; but when he sings song C he narrows his tail so it resembles a mohawk, flaps his wings, and performs little jumps and bobs.”

“These integrated song and dance routines had an additional layer of complexity: the birds performed their songs in a predictable order, always beginning with song A, then alternating between songs B and C, before finishing with song D.”

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 that dancing is challenging for the birds, just as it is for 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, with 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, I watch a female leave and check out his neighbor,” Dr Dalziell said.

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Bibliographic information: Anastasia H. Dalziell et al. Dance Choreography Is Coordinated with Song Repertoire in a Complex Avian Display. Current Biology, published online June 06, 2013; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.05.018