Sunday, January 25, 2009

Superb Lyrebird

As I've previously mentioned, some Superb Lyrebirds, Menura novaehollandiae frequent our garden. They're remarkably beautiful birds, their common name reflecting the the male's tale, which resembles an ornate musical lyre. Even more extraordinary than the plumage, however, is their famous song. Or songs....

Image: John Gould,
The birds of Australia 1840-48

This morning, we were delighted to hear one of the males performing his repertoire. It included the calls of an Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius), an Eastern Whipbird (Psopodes olivaceus), an Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen), a car alarm, the beep of an electronic car-key, and the frogs in the creek behind our house, Crinia signifera.

The Superb Lyrebird is quite large, the male being up to 100cm in length, including tale. They fossick in the leaf litter of moist forests in South-Eastern Australia, eating insects, worms and spiders. They roost in trees at night.

Their mimicry is, of course, all about getting girls. The male builds a mound to act as a stage where he throws his tale over his head, shakes it, and performs for half an hour or more. The complexity of his repertoire is directly proportional to his mating success.

The accuracy of their mimicry has to be heard to be believed, so here is a video of one being interviewed by David Attenborough.


Bjørn Østman said...

Unbelievable! Camera shutters and chain saws. I've never seen anything like it. Thanks for sharing.

Margaret said...

Yes, sexual selection leads to some amazing behaviours, doesn't it?

(By the way, when I was looking for that clip online, I found a lot that had been doctored. Same video, but different voice-over and birdcall. All sorts of stuff like opera, that the bird had supposedly heard. Quite funny, but a bit unfair on people who might have believed it!)

Diane said...

How wonderful that you have
Lyrebirds visiting your garden! And how odd it must be when they imitate a car alarm or frogs.

Margaret said...

It certainly is odd. Yesterday when we first heard it, I was wondering what bird it was I could hear. It was obviously a bird, but nothing I recognised. And then I realised that it was part of a range of different calls. Including frogs and cars. :)

andrewt said...

Imitation of artificial sound is well-known in captive lyrebirds, but rare in wild lyrebirds - so rare that it hasn't been found in comprehensive studies of some populations. Most reports result from less-experienced observers mis-interpreting Lyrebird calls as mimicry or being unfamiliar with the model species for the mimicry.

I'd guess your beep of an electronic car-key "imitation" is a Lyrebird "plik" call. The "car alarm" might be a call too or imitation of a Satin Bowerbird another bird. Both are unlikely models.

C. signifera is a more plausible model but I've never seen imitation of a frog reported. It isn't impossible - imitation of mammals does occur rarely. It would be well worth documenting (recording) if it were happening.

Margaret said...

Andrew: "Imitation of artificial sound is well-known in captive lyrebirds, but rare in wild lyrebirds - so rare that it hasn't been found in comprehensive studies of some populations."

That's not particularly surprising if the populations studied were distant from human populations. The territories of lyrebirds in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park are often close to human settlement, so they would be regularly exposed to such sounds.

Why do you suggest that the electronic car-key and car alarm mimicry is "unlikely", since it's pretty clear from Attenborough's clip--and other many other sources, including the Australian Museum--that a chain saw can be emulated in the wild?

I'd love some references from the scientific literature supporting your assertions, because they're in distinct contradiction to my reading on the subject, and I can see no reason that the evolutionary pressures that have led to mimicry of other bird species could not extend to mimicry of artificial sounds in wild populations.

Thanks in advance!

andrewt said...

For a good summary of lyrebird research including half-a-dozen cites for wild birds rarely (not) imitating artificial sounds see the Handbook of Australian & NZ Birds (volume 5) .Sherbrooke in Vic. is the most studied population and its not remote from humans. I've personally heard many (100+) Lyrebirds at locations around Sydney over the last twenty years, including KNP, and never heard an artificial sound or a frog call imitated and I've been told the same by more experienced observers.

I expect artificial sounds and frog calls do rarely creep into wild bird repertoires but it doesn't seem to have ever been conclusively documented (recorded).

Choice of bird models isn't random but doesn't seem to be understood and the almost complete absence of non-avian sounds given the capabilities demonstrated by captive birds is quite interesting.

There is also likely an interesting interplay between copying of other lyrebirds and the copying of the original model, but cultural transmission in superbs hasn't been studied.

If you could forward me a recording I'd be happy to analyse it for you. I'm betting you are mistaken but I'd be happy to be wrong.

Margaret said...

Thanks for the reference, Andrew. I'll check it out.

Unfortunately I don't have any recording equipment, so I won't be able to obtain a record of the lyrebird's call.

Jarrett said...

Great post.

In my first lyrebird encounter I was especially struck by its attempt at a kookaburra. It seemed that the lyrebird only records about 2-3 seconds of each birdcall, and of course a kookaburra is just warming up in that amount of time. The result is a disjointed little fragment that cuts off abruptly just as it's rising in pitch and speed. Very odd.

Margaret said...

Jarrett, I so love the way that kookaburras "warm up" like that. Like an old outboard motor. :)

maekitso said...

Hi Margaret. Your blog is the second pleasant discovery I have made this evening while researching for some poetry writing. Will be back soon for a healthy browse. Cheers.