Lyrebird threat mimicry

To: bird <>
Subject: Lyrebird threat mimicry
From: Syd Curtis <>
Date: Sun, 03 Oct 2004 21:08:38 +1000
Bruce Cox wrote:

There has been some excellent discussion on Birding-aus regarding lyrebird mimicry and it would be great to hear more from the experts on this topic.

From: "Bruce Cox" <>
Date: Fri, 1 Oct 2004 16:12:36 +1000

The discussion related to Superbs, but some information re Albert's may be of interest.   I may have already mentioned the following on birding-aus but it's possibly worth repeating for newer subscribers.

I commenced tape-recording bird song, and in particular Albert's lyrebird song in 1968.  (And I'm still taping and learning about lyrebirds in 2004.)   When I got my first recording of an Albert's lyrebird with the microphone (on a long cable) only a metre or so from the bird, I replayed some of the tape to hear what I had recorded.  He immediately returned and sang again.  It was my first experience of the effect of play-back on a territorial bird.  I think that not much had been reported on playback then.  Certainly I had not heard anything about it.

Later, I thought to find out if the bird would again react to playback.  He did, and gave some very peculiar calls that I had never heard before.   I wanted to record them, but this was  difficult because now he was racing around looking for the supposed intruding male lyrebird.  And I was using my mic. in a large parabolic reflector.  I persisted in trying to get a good recording.  Whenever he stopped, I used more playback.

Normally an Albert's Lyrebird is so shy that one never gets more than a brief glimpse of him, and certainly no Albert's would stay in sight once he had noticed a human.   But eventually that poor distressed bird perched in full view of me and poured forth a torrent of song.  I have it on tape.  

It is a voice drama in three parts.  The first contains  lyrebird alarm calls, and what I feel reasonably sure are threats, plus mimicry of alarm and threat calls of some other bird species, mimicry of a small frog and even a local farmer whistling his dog.  It sets a scene of DANGER!  

The third part starts with more of the same "danger" scene, but then continues with sounds of extreme distress, including something reminiscent of a domestic chook when being carried by the legs to the woodheap to have its head chopped off - a sound familiar to me from childhood in the depression days when farm income was minuscule and we periodically had an 'old boiler' for Sunday dinner.   (And BTW, roast bandicoot is very tasty, and they were ridiculously easy to trap.)

But it was the middle part that is most remarkable: for more than a minute, he mimicked Grey Goshawk.  Nothing else, just goshawk whistles interspersed with short periods of ominous silence.   All things considered, I reckon the silence was mimicry too: he was mimicking the silence of the forest that follows the recognition of the presence of a goshawk.  And during this part he slightly raised the pitch of the goshawk calls.   Certainly to this human, that intensified the  drama of the occasion.

At the time, no such thoughts passed through my mind.  Only later when listening to the tape did it occur to me that he was desperate at his failure to find the intruding male lyrebird and was offering the ultimate in lyrebird threats.  But then all I could think of was that I had caused him  terrible distress, and I left his territory immediately.  

And perhaps his suffering was ultimately in a good cause.   The last major task that I undertook before retiring from the Q. public service was to redraft the national parks regulations.  There was little chance of a regulation prohibiting playback, getting over all the hurdles of being approved by the Service Director, Solicitor-General's legal experts, Cabinet and Parliament, so an indirect approach seemed prudent.

In 1992, (some years after I retired) a Nature Conservation Act came into force.  And my draft appeared in the regulations thereunder in this form:

88.(2)  A person must not use a radio, tape recorder or other sound or amplifier system in a way that may cause unreasonable disturbance to a person or native animal in a protected area.

I don't know if such a regulation is still in force, but if so, it could be used to limit playback to an acceptable level on national parks and other conservation reserves.

After that experience I haven't used playback - except on a couple of occasions, and then only very briefly, and for specific scientific research.   But I have, on rare occasions in 30 years of lyrebird recording, taped sounds which sounded as though my target Albert's Lyrebird was disputing with an intruding male lyrebird.  On one such occasion, in Toonumbar State Forest (now N P?) in NSW, the bird used mimicry of Whipbird.    I couldn't observe what was happening - if I could see the lyrebird, he would see me and he wouldn't be there - but I think the whipbird mimicry was being used in a threat situation.  And I have some reason to think that whipbirds are nest-robbers if an opportunity arises.

Syd Curtis

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