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Despite numerous hypotheses proposed for the function of duets, there is currently no consensus as to why males and females should coordinate their songs in such a precise way. There is evidence indicating that duets sometimes serve in territory defence, but additional functions are rarely considered. The mate-defence hypothesis proposes that birds sing in response to their partner's song and the resulting duet repels rivals and may prevent desertion of a partner. We investigated this idea in the subdesert mesite Monias benschi using playback experiments in which we broadcast recordings of solos and duets to single birds and groups. Two predictions of the hypothesis were met: (1) the solo songs of both sexes incited aggressive responses from paired birds of the same sex; and (2) compared to solo songs, pair duets elicited weaker responses from groups and duetting pairs. However, groups responded to male duets with a vigour equal to that with which they responded to male solos. This indicated that the weaker responses of groups to pair duets compared to male solos was a function of the sex rather than number of vocalising birds. Groups responded more strongly to male solos than to either female solos or pair duets, and females' responses were generally weaker than those of males. This may reflect stronger competition among males for mates, due to a male-biased sex ratio in the population. We conclude that song serves similar functions in each sex and that duets may arise through mutual mate defence.

Original publication




Journal article


Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Publication Date





7 - 16