Page last updated at 05:50 GMT, Tuesday, 6 April 2010 06:50 UK

Mimic birds 'copy other species'

The bowerbird mimics by directly listening to the calls of other species

Scientists believe they are a step closer to discovering why some species of bird mimic the sounds made by other birds, animals and even humans.

University researchers from Edinburgh and St Andrews found birds such as the bowerbird learned by directly listening to the calls of other species.

They did not usually learn their mimic behaviour from other bowerbirds.

Study leader Laura Kelley said "surprisingly" little research had been done on the subject.

Ms Kelley, from the University of Edinburgh's school of biological sciences, travelled to Queensland, Australia, to research her PhD on the subject.

Learning 'songs'

She said: "This is one of the first studies to look at what a natural population of mimics is copying and where they might be copying it from.

"For hundreds of years people have looked at how birds learn their song, why birds learn their song and how it varies among individuals.

"Mimicry is, to my mind, a form of song learning, yet it's a relatively neglected area of research.

Our discovery that mimics learn directly from other species opens lots of doors for further research into why songbirds developed this ability
Laura Kelley
Lead researcher

"It's quite impressive just how accurately they can copy sounds."

She said she hoped her findings would lead to a greater understanding of the role mimicry played in the life of some bird species.

Some mimicry has a known purpose, for example, cuckoo chicks dupe other species into feeding them.

In many cases however, scientists do not know why mimicry happens or how it evolved.

Some theories suggest it might be to attract mates, to avoid being hunted, or even that birds learn the wrong songs by accident.

Ms Kelley said: "We know that lots of birds are gifted impersonators and copy the sounds of other birds, animals and people. However less is known about why birds do this or how this behaviour has arisen."

The research was published in the journal Biology Letters and was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

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