Meliphagidae Phylogeny & RH mimicry origins

To: "birding aus" <>
Subject: Meliphagidae Phylogeny & RH mimicry origins
From: "Philip A. Veerman" <>
Date: Tue, 7 Sep 2004 21:46:12 +1000
Hi All,

This is my fifth attempt to post this message to BA. Yesterday I asked Russell 
to forward it. It looks to me like all that came through was the header. As 
such I will now expunge the tail I formerly had included, being the message 
from David Geering and others. That seems to have made the combined thing too 
long or had formatting that has prevented it going through. Sorry about that. 
Enough of the irrelevance, down to the message and I hope this goes through now.

It should be taken in the context of those messages of last week.

As for the similarity of the Regent Honeyeater calls and mimicry. When I first 
encountered a Regent Honeyeater (RH) I noted that the only call this bird was 
making was indistinguishable (apart from lesser volume and some lesser 
hoarseness) from the Red Wattlebird (RW). In my then very limited
understanding of evolutionary processes, I thought it peculiar and interpreted 
this as evidence of relationship. This was in 1974 when I was in final year of 
school. It was only years later that I realised (from reading) that the Regent 
Honeyeater had other calls, that are different from those of wattlebirds. 
Remember in 1974 the only books available describing the honeyeaters were 
Cayley's, Leach's & Hugh Officer's.  I didn't think of it again for years, 
until there was a lot of attention devoted to the species (for its declining 
status). Following this attention, more reports of its mimicry came in.

The mimicry idea was not only mine (but it was me who wrote it up). It was Don 
Franklin who suggested it to me in a letter dated 19-11-1987, writing: "Your 
note describing a call resembling a RW I found particularly intriguing and I 
suggest you reconsider the possibility of vocal mimicry. Apparent
vocal mimicry has been described 3 times before" (and then listed the records 
he had). He was replying to a letter I had sent to Peter Menkhorst about this 
behaviour, that Peter had sent to him. I appreciated his suggestion. As what 
struck me was the very unusual circumstances in which all the examples
occurred, I sought further evidence and developed the idea. Experts in vocal 
mimicry from outside Australia have since then been very interested in this 
behaviour. The top of page 189 of my first ABW article on the subject (1992) 
?Vocal mimicry of larger honeyeaters by the Regent Honeyeater Xanthomyza 
phrygia?, Australian Bird Watcher 14: 180?189) clearly postulates a close 
evolutionary relationship as one possible basis for the use of wattlebird and 
friarbird calls by this species. Especially with this further evidence, I 
believe both aspects are involved, or it adds an extra dimension to what I
am still sure is true mimicry. I am not a bit surprised at stronger evidence 
than previously available, that the RH is genetically close to the RW (but 
closer than the LW is to the RW is a little hard to believe). I guess it 
depends a bit on the relative importance of the particular genetic loci being 
looked at.  The behaviour is consistent with and appears to be elicited as 
functional mimicry. It is also very likely based on a deeper inherited 
capacity. It is very different from typical random copying mimicry of other 
birds in the way done by lyrebirds, bowerbirds, orioles, etc. (Yes I know 
lyrebirds learn from other lyrebirds.) It is the context of the mimicry that is 
really odd, that it is invoked in particular circumstances: being winter-time 
association of solitary Regent Honeyeaters among groups of wattlebirds, and not 
at all whilst breeding. The question arises as to why they do the same with 
friarbirds (although I have not personally observed that). Notwithstanding that 
alarm calls of many Meliphaga honeyeaters are
very close, it is not just a phenomenon of a similar call from related species. 
Birds of other species do not spontaneously make calls of closely related 
species when surrounded by them, in the same context as done by the RH.

The Regent Honeyeater is big in colour, if not in size, compared to the RW.

As for the Blue-faced HE being aligned to the Melithreptus group, well I always 
thought that was obvious. They look so similar and sound in some ways similar. 
Nothing terribly special about gigantism, it is one of them, grown bigger.


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