Magazine article Science News

Scary Singing: Precise Birds Signal, 'Don't Mess with Us'

Magazine article Science News

Scary Singing: Precise Birds Signal, 'Don't Mess with Us'

Article excerpt

Pairs of magpie-larks that duet with split-second timing are warning that they'll really kick feathers if another bird attacks, according to new tests.

Recordings of precise duets alarmed other magpie-larks more than sloppy duets did, report Michelle Hall of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany and Robert Magrath of the Australian National University in Canberra. The researchers also found that longtime partners among magpie-larks tend to coordinate their singing better than new pairs do.

Duetting, usually by mated pairs, occurs in about 3 percent of known bird species (SN: 1/28/06, p. 58). Some observers say that Canada geese coordinate honks or that towhee mates give simultaneous squeaks. Other birds, especially those in the tropics, make remarkable music as mates take turns singing elements of a melody so smoothly that they trick a human ear into hearing a solo.

In Australia, pairs of magpie-larks (Grallina cyanoleuca) give ringing "pee-wee-pee-wee" duets. Either partner can start with a version of "pee-wee," and the other bird usually repeats it. "They're phenomenally precise," says Magrath (for audio, go to www.sciencenews.org/articles/ 20070609/precise.mp3).

One magpie-lark's part in a duet starts an average of half a second after its mate's begins, the researchers say. During any duet, that lag time varies by only a few hundredths of a second. The researchers rated coordination during a duet by how small that variation was. …

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