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Breeding Birds Use Song to Defend Territory and Discourage Mate Infidelity

Many birds, including parrots, finches and other favored pets, establish breeding territories which they defend against intruders.  Often both male and female sing or call together, in a show of strength, when others of the same species approach.  However, an article published in a recent (March, 2009) issue of Current Biology  reveals that pairs of Peruvian warbling antbirds (Hypocnemis cantator), and perhaps other species, alter their singing behavior from cooperative to competitive when an unattached female arrives on the scene.
Reaction to Another Pair

Oxford University researchers played recorded calls of antbird pairs to other pairs resident in a specific territory.  The resident pair responded as expected – male and female sang together in a vigorous display of unity, showing their willingness to defend their home. 

Reaction to a Single Female

However, when the song of an unattached female antbird was played, the situation changed dramatically.  The resident male responded with a mating call – in essence “flirting” with the new female.  Amazingly, his mate began singing loudly over his song, in an apparent attempt to “jam” the notes and render him less attractive to the interloping female!

Not to be outdone, the would-be Romeo then began altering his call in an effort to avoid the interfering song of his mate!

Female Inca Terns Tolerate No Nonsense!

Research is now being conducted to determine if other birds act in a similar fashion…I’m betting that many do.  The Inca terns (Larosterna inca) pictured here are part of a flock of 30 that I cared for in a huge outdoor exhibit at the Bronx Zoo.  I noticed a great deal of interaction during the breeding season, with single females vying for the attentions of males that were already paired and in possession of desirable nesting cavities.

Female terns are, however, a bit more “assertive” than their antbird cousins – a few sharp pecks to the male’s head generally put a quick end to any thoughts of “wandering”!

Further Reading

Antbirds are quite beautiful and interesting.  The common name arises from their unique mode of hunting.  By following hoards of foraging army ants, they are able to capture many fleeing insects that would otherwise be difficult to locate in the underbrush.

I was fortunate enough to observe this spectacle in a Costa Rican rainforest – it is a “must see” for birders, I assure you!  You can read more about antbirds and see photos of many species at http://www.arthurgrosset.com/sabirds/warblingantbird.html.





About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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