plants and animals

The lyrical lyrebird: Nature’s most masterful mimic



Guest Writer
Australia’s superb lyrebird is aptly named. Originally valued only for its long, lyre-like tail feathers, the lyrebird has surprised and delighted modern listeners with its unique ability to parrot just about any sound it hears.

When it comes to acoustic excellence, the superb lyrebird reigns supreme. This Australian native is one of the biggest in size and boldest in song of all Passerines (the order that includes all songbirds), weighing in at about the size of a pheasant and producing a dizzying array of sounds that would cause most birds to hang their heads in shame. The bird’s vocal prowess is made possible by its highly developed syrinx (vocal organ), which is the most complex of any songbird in the world.

The lyrebird’s unique mimicking capability is primarily used by males in elaborate courtship rituals, though it has recently been discovered that females also have an impressive repertoire of vocalizations that they employ in the defense of their nests and territories. The courtship rituals involve both song and dance, as the male shakes his tail feathers to his own custom tune to woo picky ladies to his personal patch of dirt. The lyrebird’s syrinx allows near-flawless imitation of other birds and mammals that share its rainforest habitat, meaning that these males have a huge array of sounds at their disposal to integrate into their love songs. These sounds can be learned directly or taught by parents – after the lyrebird’s introduction to Tasmania in the 1900s, birds born on the island continued to mimic sounds their parents had heard back on the mainland for several generations.

Interestingly enough, the lyrebird’s musical name does not actually stem from its amazing vocal ability. The name was bestowed by English colonialists, who discovered the lyrebird around 1800 and found themselves quite taken with the lyre-like shape of the male’s two outermost tail feathers. It soon became fashionable to use the males’ beautiful courtship feathers to adorn ladies’ hats, but luckily for the lyrebird, exotic plumage was banned from use in English clothing in 1921. The male lyrebird’s impressive courtship ritual was not discovered until later, but once it was, lyrebirds became much more interesting to humans alive than dead. Today, the superb lyrebird is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, and has found a 21st century celebrity status in its ability to mimic some… less natural sounds of the forest – like chainsaws, camera shutters, and even laser guns.