Bird’s gift for mimicry makes impression

Bowerbirds, well known for their quirky charms, are helping to explain why some birds can impersonate other species.

Researchers are studying the wild birds, which are best known for building elaborate platforms for courtship, to better understand their talent for mimicking the calls of other birds.

Scientists studied male spotted bowerbirds in an Australian national park and found that they learn distinctive sounds by copying the species they are impersonating, rather than from other bowerbirds nearby.

Pioneering research

The study by the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews is the first of its kind and may shed light on how and why birds learn to mimic other species.

The study may help future research into why the behaviour developed in birds.

Recordings of the calls showed that birds living near each other had a similar repertoire of mimicry.

Variety in calls

The birds’ impersonations of two other species in the area, butcherbirds and kites, revealed slight variations between each bowerbird’s versions of the calls.

The differences show that the birds are copying the original species and not each other.

Copycat birds

Some 20 per cent of songbirds copy the sounds of other species. Some mimicry has a known purpose, such as when cuckoo chicks dupe other species into feeding them.

However, in many cases scientists do not know why mimicry happens or how it evolved.

It might be to attract mates, to avoid being hunted, or birds may learn the wrong songs by accident.

The research, published in the journal Biology Letters, was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

We know that lots of birds are gifted impersonators and copy the sounds of other birds, animals and people. However, less is known about why or how this skill developed. Our discovery is important and opens lots of doors for further research into why songbirds developed this ability.

Laura KelleySchool of Biological Sciences