The Lyrebirds

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As I occasionally like to do, here’s a little natural history of an interesting bird group, this time the Lyrebird, either of two species of ground-dwelling Australian birds of the genus Menura and the family Menuridae. They are notable for their superb ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment, and the striking beauty of the male bird’s huge tail when it fanned out in courtship display. Lyrebirds are among Australia’s best-known native birds.

Superb Lyrebird

Restricted to a small area of southeastern Australia and Tasmania, the Superb Lyrebird is found in southeast Australia while Albert’s in a small region of Queensland. Both have distinctive plumage. The sixteen feathers of the Superb Lyrebird’s tail consist of two wide curving brown feathers that bend like the arms of a lyre with fourteen delicate diaphanous feathers in between. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these feathers were fashionable both as household ornaments and decorations for the hats of stylish women from Sydney to London. Only much later were the birds appreciated for their interesting courtship habits and vocal skills.

It takes up to seven years for the male lyrebird to produce his fancy tail ornamentation. It needs to be attractive because he displays on a dirt mound to several dull colored and short-tailed females who visit the mating territories of several males before deciding who is going to father her offspring. He fans and vibrates his tail feathers, bending them forward over his head, beating his wings and strutting around, all the while singing, both his own vocalizations as well as imitations of other birds. Not only is he a good mimic, but he coordinates his dance movements with his singing. The birds are polygamous, one male mating with several females after which the females assume all the responsibility for the one egg they lay, burying it deep in a pile of feathers within a large domed nest built of sticks on a mound of earth.

The Superb Lyrebird may have the most complex song of any bird, singing songs of its own, songs of perhaps 25-30 other birds like the Laughing Kookabura and Australian Magpie, and imitating sounds like gunfire, a chainsaw, a dingo’s bark and even the wingbeats of a flock of parrots. Up to 80 percent of a lyrebird repertoire consists of mimicked sounds, but most of the bird’s learning comes from listening to other males, not the original source.

Albert’s Lyrebird

Like chickens and pheasants, lyrebirds rarely fly unless a predator is nearby. They escape the threat by running and through the underbrush, shrieking high-pitched alarm calls, and finally leaping, with weak wings, onto tree branches, gliding down to the ground when the threat is over. Lyrebirds feed on seeds, insects, spiders, and earthworms they find while digging in the soil. There is also some evidence that the lyrebirds are mycophagists – fungi-eaters. Not only do the birds derive nutrition from the fungi but apparently play an important role is the dispersal of the mushrooms that are essential to the health of the rainforest.

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