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A Fairy-Wren Tale

February 7, 2011

A small Australian bird may benefit from the songs of one of its predators.


A fairy-wren tale…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Splendid fairy-wrens inhabit the arid regions of Australia and mate for life. But that doesn’t stop them from having illicit affairs with their neighbors. In fact, three-quarters of the young in a given nest are fathered by males outside of the pair.
Butcherbirds are a predator of fairy-wren eggs and young. When butcherbirds start singing, male fairy-wrens often start calling too, according to University of Chicago behavioral ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones.

(Sfx: Butcherbird and male fairy-wren calls)

He and colleague Emma Greig conducted field experiments to discover why the males piggyback on their predators’ songs. They discovered that hearing the butcherbird first captures the females’ attention.

STEPHEN PRUETT-JONES (University of Chicago):
Females respond more to a male display call that follows a butcherbird call.

He says this likely translates into more matings and reproductive success for the male. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.