The lyrebird: nature’s finest sound mimic

November 27, 2014 • 11:37 am

The superb lyrebird of Australia (Menura novaehollandiae) is perhaps the best vocal mimic in the world, and by “vocal mimic” I don’t mean having the ability to mimic voices, but having the ability to mimic diverse sounds with its voice.

In one of the first posts that appeared on this site in 2009 (only 4 comments!), I showed a video of a lyrebird apparently mimicking a chainsaw, a camera, and a car alarm.  That video is no longer at the original site, but it’s been put on YouTube again, and is just below. Naturally, it’s from an Attenborough show: the “Life of Birds” series.

Amazing, no?

This video has been cited widely, even by National Geographic, but it may not be all it’s cracked up to be. In an article at The Conversation, Hollis Taylor, a postdoc at the University of Technology in Sydney, first explains the birds’ mimicy in the wild:

. . . lyrebirds have a stunning ability to accurately mimic the sounds of the forests they inhabit. Most of their mimicry is of other avian species: calls, songs, wing beats, and beak claps, which they deliver in quick succession.

The avian sound-producing organ is the syrinx. Instead of the usual four pairs of syringeal muscles of other songbirds, lyrebirds have only three pairs. It is not known if this simplification makes them more adept at mimicry, nor is their motivation to mimic entirely clear. There is no evidence to suggest that lyrebirds attempt to fool other species.

While mimicry forms most of their vocal repertoire, lyrebirds also have their own songs and calls. While the “territorial” song can be melodious, the “invitation-display” call sounds mechanical to human ears. Twanging, clicking, scissors-grinding, thudding, whirring, “blick”-ing, galloping — these noisy or metallic sounds are the lyrebirds’ own and not mimicry. Nevertheless, they are often mistaken for that.

But Taylor adds this:

This Attenborough moment is highly popular — but hold on! He fails to mention that two of his three lyrebirds were captives, one from Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary and the other from Adelaide Zoo. This latter individual, Chook, was famed for his hammers, drills, and saws, sounds he reputedly acquired when the Zoo’s panda enclosure was built. Hand-raised from a chick, he was also known to do a car alarm, as well as a human voice intoning “hello, Chook!” He died in 2011, aged 32.

The fact that lyrebirds in captivity mimic human machines and voices with such fidelity should be a substantial enough achievement to warrant our awe.

Based on this (and what I’ll reproduce below), Taylor concludes that there’s no example of a lyrebird in nature imitating a man-made sound in its territorial defense song. But what about the third lyrebird? Where did it come from? Taylor doesn’t tell us.

She goes on to recount another putative instance of wild birds imitating man-made sounds, but that, too, is apparently due to captivity:

There is only one suggested example of imitation of a man-made sound in a lyrebird’s territorial song — wild or captive — that of the “flute lyrebirds” of the New England Tablelands. This extraordinarily complex song consists of flute-like tone colours.

You can hear five clips of the flute lyrebird at this site; just click the “mp3” links at the bottom of each description. Taylor continues:

How have we humans made sense of this?

A lyrebird chick was raised in captivity in the 1920s. It mimicked the household’s flute player, learning two tunes and an ascending scale. When released back into the wild, his flute-like songs and timbre spread throughout the Tablelands’ lyrebird population — or so the story goes.

I participate in a research group that is mapping the “flute lyrebird” territory and studying the origins of this story. Our recent article was unable to consolidate the conflicting memories and recorded anecdotes of credible witnesses.

Nevertheless, every winter the rugged, misty rainforests of the New England Tablelands resound with flute-like timbres, contrapuntal overlapping scales, and melodic contours (often with a musical competence exceeding what a human flautist could achieve) that are poles apart from the territorial songs of the rest of the species.

Do wild lyrebirds mimic machinery and the like? While I can imagine that in rare circumstances their vocalisations could reflect the human impact on their environment (and there are such anecdotes), there is no known recording of a lyrebird in the wild mimicking man-made mechanical sounds. Nevertheless, belief in such a phenomenon is now so well established on the internet that it even crops up on official sites.

Well, I don’t think the splendor if this phenomenon depends on whether the bird imitates sounds it heard in the wild or in captivity. What’s the difference? The amazing part is that the bird can do it at all! So while Taylor’s article adds a bit to our knowledge of how the lyrebird hears the human sounds, it doesn’t add much to our amazement at the bird’s abilities. What her article does show, however—if she turns out to be right—is that bird songs in a region can change dramatically due not to genetic evolution, but to cultural evolution. (If you’re a “meme” fan, you could say that the flute song was an avian “meme”.) The released “flute-imitataing” bird apparently had such a lovely song that the other birds in the area copied it, and it spread quickly and widely.

At any rate, here’s a newer video, also in the process of going viral, in which a lyrebird supposedly imitates the sounds of a video game (did it ever hear one?).  What do you think?

You can also hear the “video game” song in this clip.

40 thoughts on “The lyrebird: nature’s finest sound mimic

  1. As a kid during family picnics in Sherbrooke forest, I would wander off by myself deeper into the woods and exercise all my mostly-absent woodcraft skills trying to discover a lyrebird, but I never saw one. Years later, driving through the area, I saw two of them pecking and scratching alongside the road. That day they lost their mystery for me and I thought “You’re just big chooks!”.

    I would also like to observe that the kookaburra is mostly invisible. Even though it can be heard in movies like Tarzan, and Jungle Jim, and generally any film set in lush tropical jungle it can never be seen by subsequently visiting those places.

    1. I’ve been running on the Dandenongs trails almost every weekend for a couple of years now and thought I’d never spot one. Then, two weeks ago, running up ‘Aeroplane Hill’, there one was, just off the side of the trail. A very special moment!

      1. Small world.

        I’ve been running in the Dandenongs now for more than a decade (I should say running, walking and climbing!). But I’ve never heard of “Aeroplane Hill”.

        I saw a lyre bird about five years ago in a clearing down below one of the trails, and a couple of years ago I saw one on two successive weekends on the trail only a short distance away, close enough to recognise that the first was a female and the second a male.

        1. Small world indeed! I love running out there and imagine I’ll be finding new trails for a long time to come.

          Aeroplane Hill is in the south east corner of the national park, sort of between Selby and Kallista. It’s probably between 500-700m long, at about 20% gradient. Named, I’m told, after a runner back in the 60s or 70s who took the descent a little too fast and threw his arms out sideways in an attempt to regain his balance.

          1. I have probably covered it at some stage, but I’ll check it out when I get the chance.

            For the past few years, I’ve run The Great Train Race(13.5km), and The Roller Coaster Run (21.5km loop or add a reverse loop for a total of 43km). You have to carry water for this one.

            Next year the organisers of The Great Train Race plan to have a 29km option through Emerald (where the traditional 13.5km race finishes) to Gembrook. Looking forward to that.

            There’s also The Kokoda Challenge which is a 30km walk with a 9 hour limit, though you can cover it in less than half that time if you walk fast uphill and run the downhills.

          2. I didn’t know that about the Great Train Race next year, I might consider that. I’ve done the Roller Coaster a couple of times (one loop and two loop) and volunteered at this year’s event. Looking forward to the reversed second loop next year – I’ll be there!

    2. The kookaburra is invisible?

      I can’t remember if I’ve seen one in Sherbrooke Forest, but the trails there have become too popular so I rarely go there now. But, in the Dandenongs proper, you can see them on most weekends, along with wallabies, sulpur crested cockatoos, yellow breasted robins, and the occasional kangaroo on the lower trails around the Fern Tree Gully area.

      You do have to get up early though.

    3. I saw kookaburras when I was in Sydney. It was funny because a regular, free kookaburra landed to look at a caged one at the zoo as if to say, “Hey, what are you doing in there?”

  2. I remember when I was 14, visiting my mother at the local hospital every day. It was a common blackbird singing in a tree just outside the window. And he was repeating regularly the first eight notes of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” – a new and popular movie at this time. This melody is rather different from the usual blackbird’s song and I supposed it was “borrowed” from ever whistling italian masons working close by.

      1. We had a friend whose parrot did the first SEVEN notes to the Bridge Over the River Kwai. Drove people nuts waiting for the last note which never came…

          1. He sometimes adds an extra note to the chorus of a song, or simply leaves you dangling waiting for the last note of the song.

            If my memory serves me well, an example of the first is “Hunt by Numbers” from “j-Tull Dot Com”(coincidentally for this website, a song about cats!); and an example of the second is “Another Harry’s Bar” from “Roots to Branches”.

          2. Thanks for the clarification. I’m not a huge follower but did manage to see them at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony, which was quite fun. Speaking of such incongruities, I stumbled on something funny on FB which took place at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Apparently the members of KISS roped Renee Fleming into a photo on the street with the band members.

  3. When my brother worked at the American Embassy in Bolivia, he had to disarm his car alarm and then start his car remotely to make sure there were no bombs. His parrot used to imitate the disarmer sound, so Steve was never positive he had in fact done it. Parrot also did a mean microwave finishing sound.

    1. I had a budgie that used to imitate the sounds of sirens. He lived in a cage in a room near a busy highway we lived on so he heard sirens a lot.

  4. Regret!! I think I found this BBC video by Sir Attenborough while browsing through the library catalog 2days before, and I did not pick up!

    And I think the camera shutter sound is the funniest. You, the British, you took too much shots! :)))

  5. I don’t have the source (I think it was a reader’s letter in the RSPB magazine, many years ago), but I have read of a (European) Starling that incorporated the sound of a ringing phone into its song. Much rushing to the phone only to realise it was that damn bird again.

  6. I think this is just so cool. I don’t see what difference it makes where the bird was brought up – naturally if it’s in captivity it’s going to be exposed to a different range of sounds than a bird in the wild. The point is it can repeat the sounds. I assume some birds pick up and reproduce different sounds quicker, easier, better and a bigger range than others too. Perhaps to females this denotes a higher quality mate. Maybe it makes him less likely to be boring in his old age when his plumage isn’t quite what it once was. 🙂

  7. About 40 years ago we had an Indian Hill Mynah.
    At one point in his life a water-main broke in our street in Calgary – Simon, the mynah, used to reproduce the jackhammer sounds. Every two years or so my mother would visit us from the UK. She had a very pronounced North of England regional accent. The mynah remembered it from one visit to the next and never used it between her visits. I taught him conventional greetings in English,French German and Italian before his first birthday because mynah’s learning ability tends to slow down after that.

  8. The Marsh warbler Acrocephalus palustris, a rare breeding bird in Britain and Europe is another famous mimic which has been shown to include elements of the songs and calls of many other bird species in its own song. Mimicry of about 100 European species has been recorded in this species plus a further 113 species from central Africa where the Marsh Warbler over-winters. It appears that the song learning period is limited to the first six months or so of life and thereafter the birds to not add additional songs to their repertoire.

  9. I think the “video game” sounds are its own non-mimicry calls, described in guides as rattling, whirring and thudding noises, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Gameboy sound effects. The bird appears to be captive, and most reports of human mimicry are of captive birds.

    I think is likely that lyrebirds are much more influenced by the calls made by other lyrebirds than they are by the sounds of other birds and people – mimicking human sounds is actually very unusual. Also, lyrebirds were introduced into Tasmania in the 19th century but they continue to mimic birds such as the Eastern Whipbird that do not occur in Tasmania.

    This is what I think the calls in the video are, assuming that all the “sound effects” are its own calls:
    0:00 own calls
    0:04 Pied Currawong
    0:07 own
    0:12 White-browed Scrubwren
    0:13 Pied Currawong
    0:15 own
    0:25 Laughing Kookaburras (sounds like 2 birds)
    0:32 own
    0:59 White-browed Scrubwren
    1:05 Laughing Kookaburras
    1:15 own
    1:17 Grey Shrike-thrush(?)
    1:18 own
    1:19 White-browed Scrubwren
    1:20 Pied Currawong
    1:22 own
    1:31 White-browed Scrubwren

    1. I’ve long been assuming that many of the electromechanical buzzes and beeps were borrowed from the Satin Bowerbird, which overlaps strongly with both Lyrebirds in distribution and habitat. Bowerbird song (as opposed to their other stuff) doesn’t get enough love on YouTube, but there’s a bit from the 1-minute mark in this one. What do you think?

  10. A few years ago, I was in a little town at the border of Quebec and Vermont. I was going to sleep when I heard a car alarm. It stopped but it came back again. And again. Until someone came and explained to me that this was a bird imitating the alarm. Anyone knows about that bird who seems to be like the one in the video above?

    1. While we have our north American “mimic thrushes”–the Northern Mockingbirds, Catbirds, and Brown Thrashers–as far as I know they only imitate other birds.

      Starlings (which are in the mynah family) can be great mimics, as can some corvids–crows can pick up many odd vocalizations, and jays are good mimics of other birds.

  11. It’s somewhat sad to realize that there aren’t very many places in the world anymore where you aren’t going to hear, distantly, the sounds of some kind of human activity.

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