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Drag queening for the birds say Spanish boffins

Priscilla, Queen of the Raptors

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Fetch out the sequins: Spanish biologists working in western France have explained a curious characteristic of a bird called the marsh harrier: some males “dress” as females in their permanent plumage to win chicks and territory.

The boffins, led by Audrey Sternalski of the Instituto de Investigacion en Recursos Cingeticos in Ciudad Real, say that the female-coloured male harriers are able to avoid copping the aggression that’s typical of males defending their territory.

The researchers set up decoy birds with three plumage styles: the grey of the male, the brown-and-white of the female, and the imperfect mimicked plumage of the “she-male”. They found that aggressive males focused on attacking decoys that were typically male, making less effort to try and drive the other two off their territory.

This, they argue in a paper published in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters, gives the males-in-female-plumage a chance to cozy up to females without being driven away by jealous males. It also means they can seek out new feeding territories with less chance of having to do battle with the incumbent.

They also found that the “drag queen” marsh harriers would take their act to extremes, even attacking the female decoys rather than the males.

AFP says only one other bird has a similar “transvestite” trick up its sleeve – the wader Philomachus pugnax. ®

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