Monday, August 1, 2011


The Superb Lyrebird would have to be THE most hypnotic Australian bird. It has it all: a memorable, complex and voluble call, interesting feeding habits (endless scratching in the soil for invertebrates), a mesmerising courtship display, speed when provoked, unique plumage etc. We're blessed to have them in the bush surrounding our township. As it's now their breeding season, the males are very vocal.

Last Saturday, mid-afternoon, I had the pleasure of watching a male complete part of his courtship hullaballoo, in rugged terrain, at Echo Point. There was much wing-flapping and noise-making. Unfortunately, I didn't get to witness the celebrated tail-over-the-head culmination of the courtship extravaganza, where the bird's feathers are spread into a lyre-like arrangement.

This particular male mimicked (perfectly) the calls of 10 other birds - Pilotbird, Crimson Rosella, Sulpher-crested Cockatoo, Eastern Whipbird, Bassian Thrush (or European Blackbird; their calls are similar), Noisy Friarbird, White-browed Scrubwren, Golden Whistler, Satin Bowerbird and Laughing Kookaburra - on several occasions. The mimicry was interspersed with a thread of its own classic song and various peculiar noises, adding up to a bizarre, chopped-up soundscape that musicians DJ Shadow or Trent Reznor would be proud of emulating. Interestingly, when the male was desperately trying to seize the attention of a foraging female close-by to him, he ended his mimicry, replacing it with a five-note sequence (the fifth note less clear than the previous four) of otherworldly, almost mechanical, clipped buzzes, looped over about five minutes. Once the female wandered off, utterly underwhelmed, the male fell back into his original repertoire of song and mimicry. I've never heard a male do this before.

Female lyrebirds can also use mimicry in their assembled vocal routines, but they do it far less frequently. Males tend to be the major songsters. Ornithologists believe males put so much effort into their calls so as to (a) attract a mate and (b) establish territories. Hardly revelatory stuff. I wonder whether it's really that straightforward. Perhaps the male enjoys what he does and this outpouring of noise cum music, this grand Hallelujah to the day, is a bi-product of sheer joie-de-vivre. Think a breaching humpback.

I've had several close encounters with Superb Lyrebirds out at Fitzroy Falls over the last few years. In June 2010, I listened to a male imitating twelve bird species that frequented his local area; I've not found a lyrebird to mimic more species than this. It would be interesting to note whether males have a limit to the number of species they can mimic. I will follow this up asap.

Stay tuned.

LJ, August 1 2011.

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