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Splendid Splendiferousness and the “Scary Movie Effect”

January 31, 2011

ResearchBlogging.orgSuperman thought he was pretty freaking super and Mighty Mouse thought he was pretty freaking mighty. Therefore, splendid fairy-wrens must think they’re pretty freaking splendid.* And they probably do (especially when compared to their cousins, the less splendidly named lovely fairy-wren and superb fairy-wren). Alas, despite the splendiferous cockiness that their name suggests, male splendid fairy-wrens lack confidence in their ability to snag a female.

In fact, male splendid fairy-wrens are so insecure about their ability to get a female’s attention that they’ve resorted to a technique employed by human boys worldwide: the “scary movie effect.” In other words, they wait until something scary—in this case, the call of a predator—grabs the female’s attention and then they simply let her know that they’re there. And guess what, it works.**

It goes like this: A butcherbird calls. (Butcherbirds, named for their habit of hanging their prey on a hook, are a major fairy-wren predator.) And almost immediately after the start of that call, a male splendid fairy-wren lets out his own call—a type II call. This vocal hitchhiking produces a duet that the female splendid fairy-wren presumably hears as: “Yo” (in the scary voice of a big bad butcherbird) “Hey there pretty lady” (in the sweet voice of a male splendid fairy-wren).

The female responds by looking in the direction of the male splendid fairy-wren, inviting him to flirt with her. He accepts the invitation, showing off with a face fan (a display in which he flares his ear tufts), a seahorse flight (a display in which he undulates between a horizontal position and a vertical position as he slowly lowers himself to the ground and then springs back up into the air) or by accessorizing with pink and purple flower petals.

Male splendid fairy-wren face fan. Wikimedia Commons: Nevil Lazarus

Emma Grieg and Stephen Pruett-Jones, the scientists who studied this behavior, found that female splendid fairy-wrens were more attentive to butcherbird-type II call duets than they were to stand-alone type II calls. They also found that the female splendid fairy-wrens only responded to the duets when the type II call came from an intruding male. If the type II call came from her own mate, she wasn’t interested—even if it followed a butcherbird’s call.

(Yeah, that’s right—her mate. Ya see, splendid fairy-wrens have an interesting social structure. They pair up for life, but they mate predominantly with individuals other than their actual “mate.”)

Wacky morals aside, what is that splendid little bird thinking when he calls attention to himself in the presence of a predator? Grieg and Pruett-Jones aren’t sure, but they suspect that butcherbirds are most dangerous when they sneak up on splendid fairy-wrens in open areas. So when the fairy-wrens are safely tucked away in vegetation and totally aware of the butcherbird’s location, perhaps they’re safe—perhaps even safe enough to flaunt their splendiferousness.

*Imagine if every Tom, Dick and Harry were re-named splendid Tom, splendid Dick and splendid Harry. Just imagine…

**For the birds. Guys, please, if you’re older than 15 do not use this technique on your date. It’s lame.

Greig, E., & Pruett-Jones, S. (2010). Danger may enhance communication: predator calls alert females to male displays Behavioral Ecology, 21 (6), 1360-1366 DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arq155

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