While male birds are singing elaborate arias and flashing their feathers, it's easy to imagine their female counterparts are unimportant actors. Duller and quieter, all a lady bird has to do is hold still and let one of these frantic performers mate with her. Yet in brown-headed cowbirds, at least, the quiet female keeps the whole society in order. Scientists discovered this by targeting a tiny portion of the female brain and frying it.
Males of the species Molothrus ater use their songs to compete with each other and to woo females. Once a a mating pair forms, they stay faithful to each other for the whole mating season, the male guarding his partner from rivals.
Near the top of the bird brain, a region called nucleus HVC controls females' choosiness toward their potential mates. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and Wilfrid Laurier University performed brain surgery on female cowbirds, carefully destroying only this region. Then they put their lobotomized females back into the dating arena to see what would happen.
First, the ladies listened to recordings of male songs. The researchers played tunes sung by a variety of males and observed the females' responses. (When they like what they hear, female cowbirds show it by crouching down in a copulation-ready pose.)
Normal females were choosy, only responding to the highest-quality male songs. Females who'd had brain surgery, though, responded positively to every song.
The researchers wanted to see what effect the females' new, lax attitude would have in cowbird society. So they put post-surgery females, normal females, and males in one big group together. Then they watched.
At first, it looked like nothing was different. Females missing their HVC seemed to act the same as females with intact brains; once they were all together in the aviary, there was no clear difference in how often females approached male birds or in how they "chattered" back at males to encourage their singing.
Nevertheless, something had changed. The other birds in the aviary treated post-surgery females differently. For one thing, females missing their HVC were serenaded by a greater variety of males, even once they'd chosen a mate. Normally, a female who's bonded with a male hears his song almost exclusively. This is a measure of how strong the bond between partners is, says study author David White. Now, with more males bending a female's ear, her pair bond was weaker.
There were other changes too. With the altered females introduced into the group, female birds competed more for mates. And the whole hierarchy of male birds, which is established before the breeding season starts, was disrupted. Male cowbirds sing at each other to show who's dominant. After the HVC-less females came to live with them, the rules about which males were dominant singers shifted significantly.
"The result in this paper turned everything around for us," White says.
Previously, it had seemed to be the male cowbird's responsibility to create a strong bond with his partner. Females appeared to be passive agents in the group. "They don't sing, they don't fight," White says. "They don't, to our eye, do much of anything." Yet when the choosiness was erased from females' brains, the whole group dynamic changed. "Now we could see that it was the female that was playing a much more active role in pair-bonding, and in all sorts of other roles within the social network," White says. Everything depended on her song preferences.
Incidentally, it's not clear why female cowbirds bond with males at all.
Females have likely evolved to pick mates whose songs demonstrate—somehow—that they have the best genes. Then the males keep singing to the females throughout the breeding season, strengthening the bond between them.
Usually, White says, bird couples only form strong bonds when both parents will need to care for the young. But cowbirds "are very bad parents overall" who abandon their eggs in the nests of other birds. The powerful bond between cowbird partners "really makes no sense," White says.
Yet once they're bonded, males direct almost all their singing to their partner and never try to mate with other birds. "They follow each other around, they eat together, he comes when she calls him," White says. If a female dies or disappears, he adds, "her pairmate just becomes a wreck. We call it the widowed male phenomenon."
After the loss of his mate, the male gives up for the season. "He flies around looking for her," White says. To him, at least, the quiet female never seemed unimportant.
Maguire, S., Schmidt, M., & White, D. (2013). Social Brains in Context: Lesions Targeted to the Song Control System in Female Cowbirds Affect Their Social Network PLoS ONE, 8 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063239
Image: female brown-headed cowbird by JanetandPhil (via Flickr)