The amazing vocal skills of the lyrebird

March 22, 2009 • 1:24 pm

No time for extensive posting today: Dr. Coyne has to do his day job. But here is an amazing video of perhaps the most remarkable example of animal mimicry I’ve seen: the Australian Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae). This is a marvel of what sexual selection can produce. To attract females, the males of this sexually dimorphic species (so called because its tail resembles the frame of a lyre), have the ability to imitate the calls of up to twenty different bird species. They can also imitate nearly anything else. In the clip below, which was voted as the “best Attenborough moment” by viewers, the bird imitates the following, in order:

A kookaburra (“laughing bird”)

Camera shutter

Camera with motor drive

Car alarm

And, pathetically, a chain saw (yes, that’s the lyrebird making that noise). So sad that a bird will imitate the sounds of a machine that is decimating its habitat.

Remarkably, lyrebirds show parallel imitation of songs; that is, when individuals of another species vary from place to place in their call, the lyrebird shows the same variation.  Listen to the lyrebirds imitating individual satin bowerbirds at this website from the University of Queensland.  Click the bowerbird, then the “sympatric” (i.e., living in same place) lyrebird.

Why would such mimicry evolve in males? A clue is that females don’t mimic.  One obvious suggestion, then, supported by work published last year in Animal Behaviour, is that female lyrebirds prefer to mate with those males who are able to mimic the greatest number of species, and to do so with the greatest accuracy. Why would females choose males who can do this?  One of the many puzzles of sexual selection, as detailed in my book.  We know a bit about why females choose particular traits in some species, but for most species it’s a mystery whose solution would require untold hours of work.

Wikipedia also describes the amazing vocal range of this bird:


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 [2], car engines and car alarms, fire alarms, rifle-shots, camera shutters, dogs barking and crying babies. 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 [3] [4] [5].

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. [6] [7] [8]

An anecdotal example

A Lyrebird’s tale

During the early 1930s, a male lyrebird, called \”James\”, formed a close bond of friendship 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\’ 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, a 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\’ performance was his perfect mimicry of the sounds made by a rock-crusher at work, a hydraulic ram, and the tooting of motor-horns. [9]

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