More on the Lyrebird

To: CanberraBirds <>
Subject: More on the Lyrebird
From: John Harris <>
Date: Thu, 6 Feb 2014 05:25:11 +0000
Dear patient COG members,
Please don’t feel obliged to read this, but thank you to every person who has commented on my post about the lyrebird and my grandfather’s flint box, some directly and some via the COG chatline. All were helpful. 
Geoffrey Dabb and subsequently Ian Fraser have encouraged me to publish my anecdotes on the unfortunate but true reality that (to quote Ian), “if it wasn’t published it didn’t happen.” 
I will try to do this although I would like someone to enlighten me as to what ‘publishing’ might mean in this case. Is a little piece in Gang Gang enough or maybe a ‘note’ in CBN?
I am more than confident in publishing  in my own areas of expertise but a bit daunted when it comes to birds and there are so many COG members and others with much more knowledge than me.

If I were to publish the story alone it would be only a few stark lines and I feel that a little background at least is warranted. So I would like to stretch your patience and put down my thoughts on lyrebird mimicy with the request for your comments on my thoughts.
  1. The question appears to be whether WILD lyrebirds mimic human noises or particularly human mechanical noises, as distinct from mimicking domestic animals, notably dogs etc which seems attested well enough. There is surely now adequate evidence that CAPTIVE lyrebirds do mimic mechanical noises as publicised by David Attenborough’s famous (infamous?) footage of lyrebirds mimicking camera shutters, car alarms and chain saws, all of which were captive lyrebirds although Sir D did not say so.
  2. It would seem to me to be logical that if captive lyrebirds mimic mechanical noises, then there is no reason why wild lyrebirds would not mimic the same mechanical noises if exposed to them often enough – and possibly also early enough. Several people have contacted me privately or via the chatline to say they have themselves heard  lyrebirds mimicking chain saws etc.
  3. My anecdote of the lyrebirds mimicking a flint striking is just such a case of  lyrebirds regularly exposed to  sounds it could mimic . This happens less today than once it used to. Timber–getters now use bulldozers and probably don’t sleep in the forest at night and light their pipes with flints but this was once commonplace. It was also commonplace with early settlers clearing forest for farming and sleeping rough. The early bushmen and swagmen (and women) heard far more lyrebirds than we ever will now.  (For those who have asked me, a flint box or more correctly a tinder box is a metal box containing tinder, an easily flammable material, usually ash from the slow burning of cotton fabric. A spark is struck from a piece of metal such as a piece of flat file or even the roughened lid of the box, using as a striker another hard piece of metal or, in grandfather’s case, a piece of flint stone. This can ignite the ‘tinder’ in the box and this is used to coax dry leaves or grass into flame.)
  4. The sound of a flint striking is close to that of the striking of a match, repeated several times in succession as we do if a match does not strike the first time. But the flint is more ‘metallic’. It had a bit of a metallic ring to it depending on the kind of striker etc.  This sound includes noises not unlike those already in the lyrebird’s repertoire but the same could be said of the camera shutter in the case of captive birds. Obviously, some sounds are more readily imitated than others.
  5.  It is also true that Lyrebirds are very likely to learn some things from the calls of other lyrebirds, even after the original sound is no longer being generated in their forest. The best known case of this in regard to human sounds are the NSW New England lyrebirds which learned flute tunes and scales from a once-captive lyrebird to which someone allegedly played the flute.  If a lyrebird learned to mimic the striking of a flint, other birds would learn from that bird and so on, even after the death of the first bird.
  6. My own interpretation of my anecdote is that the striking of a flint was common in quiet evenings a century and more ago in the lower Blue Mountains and that it entered the lyrebird repertoire. My grandfather knew that he could use that sound to attract the lyrebirds which were not as I recall attracted generally to speech nor to the usual random sounds of setting up camp. It was only after that when we sat down to relax that Grandfather would call the lyrebirds – he did it whether he was actually lighting his pipe or not. And they would come, making unmistakable sounds of flint striking.  Yes, they may indeed have been investigating the presence, not of a human, but of a strange lyrebird.
  7. Fewer lyrebirds live in close proximity to humans these days and even those who do, no longer hear the sound of a flint. I suppose that those in the Blue Mountains who have survived the encroaching suburbia may have gradually amended the flint sound or merged it with other sounds so that if it exists at all in their repertoire it may no longer be so recognisable as it was 70 years ago.   
Thanks for being interested enough to read all this.!

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