Click here to skip to content

The language of birds: 1.3 Duetting

In certain bird species, the mated pair sing duets - male and female cooperate in proclaiming property rights. The role of each singer is so precise, and the two "parts" so closely coordinated, that it is hardly possible to believe that what you hear is from the throats of two individuals. The best-known and best-studied duettists are certain African shrikes, notably the tropical boubou shrike Laniarius aethiopicus. The male in this species sings a musical "boubou boubou" and the female chimes in instantly with a harsh " squaw!". Another species, the slate-coloured boubou shrike L. funebris, is more consistently musical. The male produces a couple of deep notes - " clack clack" immediately followed by a rising whistle from the female - "whee!". The two contributions are so beautifully synchronised it is hardly possible to believe that more than one bird is involved.

Sonogram - duetting song of Slate-coloured Boubou Shrike (8K)
A sonogram of the duetting song of Slate-coloured Boubou Shrike Laniarius funebris

Slate-coloured Boubou Laniarius funebris
song, recorded by Claude Chappuis, 10 September 1980, Bushwhackers, 200 km south-east Nairobi, Kenya.

Recordings of such species as these, and the resulting voice prints, show that the partners' reaction time is to be measured in a tenth of a second. Just why such a complicated proclamation should have evolved is a mystery.

Language of birds contents