October 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Deep in the rainforests, there is a bird call which mimics a chainsaw... or is there? James Doyle investigates the truth about the legendary Lyrebird.

Lyrebird in forest

The Lyrebird is an extraordinary creature with a very special talent. Native to the Rainforests of Australia, this shy and often hidden bird is a master of disguise. You see, the lyrebird loves to sing and will quite happily belt out its songs for most of the daylight hours, but the Lyrebird’s true talent lies in its ability to ‘lie’ or at least ‘mimic’ sounds around it. Considered one of Australia’s best-known birds, you will most likely recognise them from the side of a ten cent coin, but can we separate myth from fact when it comes to the lyrebird? They are renowned for their spectacular courtship displays, but what about claims that they can mimic mechanical noises such as chainsaws and camera clicks?

Lyrebird Basics

Australia has two species of lyrebird: the Superb Lyrebird can be found in the forests of Victoria and down into New South Wales. The second species is the lesser known Albert’s Lyrebird, native of southern Queensland rainforest. Both species are about the size of a pheasant and have elaborate and awkward tails which coincidentally resemble a lyre; a stringed instrument in the form of a small U-shaped harp, used especially in ancient Greece.lyrebird on Australia 1 shilling stamp

Apart from their spectacular tail however, lyrebirds are now notorious for their vocal feats. Lyrebirds sing most in the winter when the breeding season is in full swing. Like all songbirds, lyrebirds are vocal learners. Male lyrebirds tend to learn their songs and, intriguingly, even their mimicry of other sounds, from older males rather than directly from their mimicked models.

What is certain is the lyrebird’s stunning ability to accurately mimic the sounds of the forests around them. Most lyrebird mimicry is of other bird species such as songs, wing beats and so on.

Human Interference

If you’ve seen David Attenborough’s ‘Life of Birds’ series, you might recall how Attenborough peers at a lyrebird from behind a tree, whispering to us about the bird mimicking sounds that he hears from the forest. We then witness incredible  footage of the bird imitating a camera’s motor drive, a shrieking car alarm, and even the buzz of a chainsaw!

This footage has caught the human imagination and has become an Internet sensation, but what Attenborough fails to mention is that two of the three lyrebirds which featured in the footage were captive birds, one from Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary and the other from Adelaide Zoo. The latter was famous for his hammers, drills, and saws repertoire which he reputedly acquired when the Zoo’s panda enclosure was built. And yes, even though they were in captivity, their ability to mimic these sounds so perfectly is nevertheless an amazing feat, and marks the lyrebird out as an amazing creature. However, the fact remains that evidence from the wild is much harder to come by.

Evidence from the Wild

There appears to be only one known example of imitation of a man-made sound in a lyrebird’s territorial song. This has been bound up in legend and entitled the ‘flute lyrebirds’ of the New England Tablelands – An extraordinarily complex song composed of flute-like tone colours. The story goes that a lyrebird chick was raised in captivity in the 1920s in the home of a flute player before being released into the wild. After that, legend has it that his flute-like songs spread throughout the Tablelands’ lyrebird population.

If you go down to the woods today…

Regardless of the ‘where’s’ and ‘why’s’ of this amazing story, if you find yourself strolling through the rainforests of the New England Tablelands in the winter time you may well experience the surreal serenade of flute-like timbres, contrapuntal overlapping scales, and melodic contours. These will not be the result of a philharmonic orchestra relocating to the Australian outback, rather, just the songs of the lyrebird.

Hear more of the flute lyrebirds here.

And what about the machine sounds?

Whilst hard and fast evidence of wild lyrebirds imitating the sounds of humans and their machinery has yet to be accurately recorded, their amazing ability to mimic a whole array of sounds would suggest that they have the capability to do so with supreme ease. So, if you find yourself in the Australian rainforest, don’t get frightened or unnerved by the noises that surround you. You may have just encountered the little ‘liar’ the lyrebird.

James DoyleA young scientist's guide to faulty freaks of nature book cover is the author of the ‘Young Scientist’s Guide’ books.

This article is based on an extract from A Young Scientist’s Guide to Faulty Freaks of Nature.

Images: Lyrebird,  David Cook/Flickr; postage stamp, Solodov Alexey/Shutterstock