Lyrebirds mimicking chainsaws: fact or lie?

To: "'John Harris'" <>, "'CanberraBirds'" <>
Subject: Lyrebirds mimicking chainsaws: fact or lie?
From: "Philip Veerman" <>
Date: Wed, 5 Feb 2014 15:32:38 +1100
I must disagree on behalf of myself and others about your claim that "the only people who claim they don’t imitate all manner of non-bird sounds are theorists who have never had the joy hearing them for themselves." That is not true, or even fair or close to reasonable. Maybe John means the people who claim they don’t are observers who have never heard this particular mimicry for themselves. For two reasons "theorists" are nobodies unless they either test their theories by experiment or observation, so why would anyone be interested in their contribution. The other reason is that I doubt that there is anyone who has ever contributed to this debate, who has "never had the joy hearing them for themselves". Why would such a person bother? To do so would be rather silly. Yes I suppose there will be people outside Australia who have never heard them but have worked on analysis of writings of those who have. Including the research of those who claim lyrebirds don’t imitate all manner of non-bird sounds.
I suppose in this case David Attenborough is a bad example because he contributed significantly by putting out a film that is seen around the world, of a captive bird mimicking machine sounds. But the film did not reveal that it was raised and filmed in captivity. I do understand that for all sorts of production reasons it is easier to get close film of a captive bird performing than a wild one. He made the theorist mistake to claim they imitate non-bird sounds, as though they do that normally. In fact he had ONE aberrant example that did. I don't know whether he was not properly advised that this was not normal behaviour or whether he decided to ignore such advice in the interests of TV drama or brevity. He may not have even appreciated the significance of the history of that one bird and that his doco was very misleading. Indeed the film gives the impression that he specifically wished to highlight this mimicry of a range of mechanical sounds. My view on that is that he is well aware that the largely non Australian TV viewing audience will easier appreciate the skill of the bird, as they know these sounds. Whereas they don't know the sounds of all the other birds that they mimic. As an entertainer he knows that to demonstrate bird call mimicry, to an audience who know nothing of bird calls would be much harder in a one minute sample.
As for putting me in the only people who claim they don’t are theorists who have never had the joy hearing them for themselves. I have not specifically studied lyrebirds but over the years I have heard many and heard lots of recordings from other people. Nothing, apart from the Attenborough film has mimicry of machines. I have however specifically studied avian vocal mimicry, mainly in the context of other species. Maybe John would call me a theorist but not the other half of the sentence.
Many (?) people who have studied them extensively have confirmed that they do not mimic mechanical sounds. I believe most conclude that the sounds that allegedly other people are reporting as mechanical are their own whirring or clicking noises that coincidentally sound mechanical. I believe it was mainly Norman Robinson who spent years studying them who worked out that one. It is mainly the people who hear them occasionally who come up with the mimic mechanical sounds ideas.
John's story about flint noises may be entirely true but I'm not convinced it is not their own noise and I'm not convinced that they attach any meaning to it. Maybe they recognise the sound as showing disturbance and come to see if any worms are being dug up......... It makes sense that they would be curious about investigating all kinds of noises.
Even so, there is enough suggestion of it from sufficient people that it just may be a real and possibly increasing thing in limited and special circumstances.
For what it is worth, I believe David McDonald wrote an article in CBN years ago of hearing one mimic the sound of a pig and Harold Pollock's 1967 book and record has one clearly mimicking the sound of a small dog. 
-----Original Message-----
From: John Harris [
Sent: Wednesday, 5 February 2014 2:09 PM
To: Susanne Gardiner; CanberraBirds
Subject: Re: [canberrabirds] Lyrebirds mimicking chainsaws: fact or lie?

Lyrebirds can and do imitate all manner of non-bird sounds and the only people who claim they don’t are theorists who have never had the joy hearing them for themselves. One of the wonderful memories of my happy childhood with my bird-loving grandfather in the 1940s was to walk and camp (very simply) in the Blue mountains, looking for birds and recording them in his old notebook. No camera of course but we did have an old pair of ex-army binoculars which I proudly carried. At dusk we would sit by a pool and he would light his pipe with his old tinder box which he preferred to matches. It always amused him to see if a lyrebird came to the sound of the striking of the flint. They mostly did, making striking flint noises, often  from several directions, scratching around in the leaves on the forest floor a few yards from us and sometimes even scuttling across the open ground beside us.   Ever since the timber-getters, lyrebirds had learned to imitate the sound of the flint striking but by the 1940s they were learning it from each other and no doubt it had acquired a meaning of some kind.  They just about always came. Now with the advantage of years I think it was most likely because they initially took grandfather’s flint to be the call of a strange lyrebird in their territory which they wanted to investigate…..Sorry, but I find it hard not to reminisce if someone gives me an excuse….

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