Female Song Birds Do Sing And Charles Darwin Got It Wrong

Female Superb Fairywren singing. This common Australian backyard bird is only one of many female songbirds worldwide known to sing. Photo: Lindley McKay

Song is almost as common in female birds as in males, according to new research which challenges Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and the evolution of elaborate bird songs.

“Darwin focused on the evolution of song through sexual selection, and assumed bird song was a male trait to attract females,” said Dr Naomi Langmore, from the ANU’s Research School of Biology.

“Our findings suggest that bird song may have evolved through a broader process, called social selection, as both sexes competed for food, nest sites, mates and territories.”

Darwin had suggested the primary role of female birds was to listen to the songs of the males.

Instances of female bird song were traditionally dismissed as rare or the outcome of hormonal aberrations.

But the latest study found female song was present in the ancestors of all songbirds and today remains in 71 per cent of the songbird species surveyed.

Dr Langmore said most songbird species in Australia feature bird song from both males and females, including lyrebirds, fairy-wrens, honeyeaters, fantails, whistlers and magpies.

She said the songs from male and female birds were equally melodic.

She said female bird song was less common in a recently-evolved group of songbirds in Europe and North America, which may explain why the old assumptions lasted for so long.

The research, by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the University of Melbourne, The Australian National University and Leiden University in the Netherlands, is published today in the journal Nature Communications.