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The Lyrebird is either of two species of ground-dwelling Australian birds, most notable for their superb ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment. Lyrebirds have unique plumes of neutral coloured tailfeathers.
Lyrebirds are among Australia's best-known native birds. As well as their extraordinary mimicking ability, lyrebirds are notable because of the striking beauty of the male bird's huge tail when it is fanned out in display; and also because of their courtship display. A group of Lyrebirds is called a musket.
There are two species of lyrebird:
- Superb Lyrebird or Weringerong (Menura novaehollandiae) is found in areas of rainforest in Victoria, New South Wales and south-east Queensland, as well as in Tasmania where it was introduced in the 19th century. Females are 74 to 84 centimetres (cm) long, and the males are a larger 80 to 98 cm long—making them the third-largest passerine bird after the Thick-billed Raven and the Common Raven. Many Superb Lyrebirds live in the Dandenong Ranges National Park and Kinglake National Park around Melbourne, the Royal National Park and Illawarra region south of Sydney and in many other parks along the east coast of Australia as well as non protected bushland.
- Albert's Lyrebird (Menura alberti) is slightly smaller at a maximum of 90 cm (male) and 84 cm (female) (around 30-35 inches) and is only found in a very small area of Southern Queensland rainforest. They have smaller, less spectacular lyrate feathers than the Superb Lyrebird, but are otherwise similar. Albert's Lyrebird was named in honour of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria.
Male lyrebirds call mostly during winter, when they construct and maintain an open arena-mound in dense bush, on which they sing and dance in courtship, to display to potential mates, of which the male lyrebird has several. Females build an untidy nest usually low to the ground in a moist gully where she lays a single egg, and she is the sole parent who incubates the egg over 50 days until it hatches, and she is also the sole carer of the lyrebird chick.
Lyrebirds feed on insects, spiders, earthworms and, occasionally, seeds. They find food by scratching with their feet through the leaf-litter. When in danger, lyrebirds run, rather than fly, being awkward in flight, and have also been seen to take refuge in wombat burrows. Also, firefighters sheltering in mine shafts during bushfires have been joined by lyrebirds.
A lyrebird's call is a rich mixture of its own song and any number of other sounds it has heard. The lyrebird's syrinx is the most complexly-muscled of the Passerines (songbirds), giving the lyrebird extraordinary ability, unmatched in vocal repertoire and mimicry. Lyrebirds render with great fidelity the individual songs of other birds and the chatter of flocks of birds, and also mimic other animals, human noises, machinery of all kinds, explosions, and musical instruments. The lyrebird is capable of imitating almost any sound — from a mill whistle to a cross-cut saw, and, not uncommonly, sounds as diverse as chainsaws, car engines and car alarms, fire alarms, rifle-shots, camera shutters, dogs barking, crying babies, and even the human voice. Lyrebirds are shy birds and a constant stream of bird calls coming from one place is often the only way of identifying them and their presence. The female lyrebird is also an excellent mimic, but she is not heard as often as the male lyrebird.
One researcher, Sydney Curtis, has recorded flute-like lyrebird calls in the vicinity of the New England National Park. Similarly, in 1969, a park ranger, Neville Fenton, recorded a lyrebird song which resembled flute sounds in the New England National Park, near Dorrigo in northern coastal New South Wales. After much detective work by Fenton, it was discovered that in the 1930s, a flute player living on a farm adjoining the park used to play tunes near his pet lyrebird. The lyrebird adopted the tunes into his repertoire, and retained them after release into the park. Neville Fenton forwarded a tape of his recording to Norman Robinson. Because a lyrebird is able to carry two tunes at the same time, Robinson filtered out one of the tunes and put it on the phonograph for the purposes of analysis. The song represents a modified version of two popular tunes in the 1930s: "The Keel Row" and "Mosquito's Dance". Musicologist David Rothenberg has endorsed this information.
An anecdotal example
A Lyrebird's tale
During the early 1930s, a male lyrebird, called "James", formed a close bond with a human being, Mrs. Wilkinson, after she had been offering food to him over a period of time. James would perform his courtship dance for her on one of his mounds which he had constructed in her backyard — and he would also put on his display for a wider audience, but only when Mrs. Wilkinson was one of those present. On one such occasion, James's performance lasted for forty-three minutes, and included steps to a courtship dance accompanied by his own tune — and also included imitating perfectly the calls of an Australian Magpie, and a young magpie being fed by a parent-bird, an Eastern Whipbird, a Bellbird, a complete laughing-song of a Kookaburra, two Kookaburras laughing in unison, a Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoo, a Gang-gang Cockatoo, an Eastern Rosella, a Pied Butcherbird, a Wattle-bird, a Grey Shrike-thrush, a Thornbill, a White-browed Scrubwren, a Striated Pardalote, a Starling, a Yellow Robin, a Golden Whistler, a flock of parrots whistling in flight, the Crimson Rosella, several other birds whose notes his audience were not able to identify, and the song of honey-eaters (tiny birds with tiny voices), that gather in numbers and "cheep" and twitter in a multitudinous sweet whispering. In order to mimic the honeyeaters' singing faithfully, James was obliged to subdue his powerful voice to the faintest pianissimo, but he contrived, nevertheless, to make each individual note of the soft chorus audibly distinct. Also included in James's performance was his perfect mimicry of the sounds made by a rock-crusher at work, a hydraulic ram, and the tooting of motor-horns.
The classification of lyrebirds has been much debated. They were thought briefly to be Galliformes like the broadly similar looking partridge, junglefowl, and pheasants that Europeans were familiar with, but since then have usually been classified in a family of their own, Menuridae, which contains a single genus, Menura.
It is generally accepted that the lyrebird family is most closely related to the scrub-birds (Atrichornithidae) and some authorities combine both in a single family, but evidence that they are also related to the bowerbirds remains controversial.
Lyrebirds are not endangered in the short to medium term. Albert's Lyrebird has a very restricted habitat but appears to be secure within it so long as the habitat remains intact, while the Superb Lyrebird, once seriously threatened by habitat destruction, is now classified as common. Even so, lyrebirds are vulnerable to cats and foxes, and it remains to be seen if habitat protection schemes will stand up to increased human population pressure.
Lyrebirds are ancient Australian animals: The Australian Museum has fossils of lyrebirds dating back to about 15 million years ago. The prehistoric Menura tyawanoides has been described from Early Miocene fossils found at the famous Riversleigh site.
Lyrebird emblems and logos
The lyrebird has been featured as a symbol and emblem many times, especially in New South Wales and Victoria (where the Superb Lyrebird has its natural habitat) – and in Queensland (where Albert's Lyrebird has its natural habitat).
- A stylised Superb Lyrebird appears in the transparent window of the Australian 100 dollar note.
- A silhouette of a male Superb Lyrebird is the logo of the Australian Film Commission
- An illustration of a male Superb Lyrebird, in courtship display, is the emblem of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service
- The pattern on the curtains of the Victorian State Theatre is the image of a male Superb Lyrebird, in courtship display, as viewed from the front.
- A stylised illustration of a male Albert's Lyrebird was the logo of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, before the Conservatorium became part of Griffith University. In the logo, the top part of the lyrebird's tail became a music stave.
- Australian band You Am I's 2008 album Dilettantes and its first single, Erasmus, feature a drawing of a lyrebird by artist Ken Taylor.
- A stylised illustration of part of a male Superb Lyrebird's tail is the logo for the Lyrebird Arts Council of Victoria.
- The lyrebird is also featured atop the crest of Panhellenic Sorority Alpha Chi Omega, whose symbol is the lyre.
- There are many other companies with the name of Lyrebird, and these also have lyrebird logos.
Painting by John Gould
The lyrebird is so called because the male bird has a spectacular tail consisting of 16 highly modified feathers (two long slender lyrates at the centre of the plume, two broader medians on the outside edges and twelve filamentaries arrayed between them), which was originally thought to resemble a lyre. This happened when a Superb Lyrebird specimen (which had been taken from Australia to England during the early 19th century) was prepared for display at the British Museum by a taxidermist who had never seen a live lyrebird. The taxidermist mistakenly thought that the tail would resemble a lyre, and that the tail would be held in a similar way to that of a peacock during courtship display, and so he arranged the feathers in this way. Later, John Gould (who had also never seen a live lyrebird), painted the lyrebird from the British Museum specimen.
Although very beautiful, the male lyrebird's tail is not held as in John Gould's painting. Instead, the male lyrebird's tail is fanned over the lyrebird during courtship display, with the tail completely covering his head and back — as can be seen in the image at the top of this page, where the Superb Lyrebird's tail (in courtship display) is portrayed accurately.
- ^ Amazing Facts about Australian Birds, by Steve Parish, Steve Parish Publishing, 1997.
- ^ The nation's favourite David Attenborough moment - Daily Mail article
- ^ - "passeriform" article, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2005.
- ^ - Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, 1976.
- ^ -Favourite Australian Birds, Bay Books, 1998.
- ^ - In conversation with David Rothenberg - NewMusicBox interview including flute lyrebird story.
- ^ - The Lyrebird - A Natural History, by Pauline Reilly, New South Wales University Press, 1988.
- ^ - The Lore of the Lyrebird, by Ambrose Pratt, the Endeavour Press, 1933.
- ^ CSIRO Publishing — Australian Journal of Zoology
- ^ Lyrebird: Overview - Pulse of the Planet