Lyrebird Mimicry

Subject: Lyrebird Mimicry
From: "Dean Portelli" <>
Date: Thu, 13 Mar 2003 12:16:25 +1100
Syd Curtis made a posting 28 Feb discussing Lyrebird mimicry. I would like to add further comment to some of Syd's comments ? beware, long message!.

In replying to a query by Tony Russell concerning where the bulk of lyrebird mimicry takes place, Syd replied " is possible some vocalisation was made away from the display mounds [in Robinson's study], but it would have been a very minor amount. Lyrebirds,both species, occasionally display on a rock or log, and that song too would be mainly mimicry, but it doesn't happen often". In my observations of Superb Lyrebirds I have observed on several occasions that they give mimicry from sites other than the display mound, and whilst not engaged in visual display. These observations have been made both within and outside of the breeding season, and suggest to me that mimicry away from the display mound constitutes more than a minor amount of the total mimicry given. For example last July I was at Royal National Park and observed a male singing on his display mound with mimicry and species-specific vocalisations associated with display, but also watched him singing with mimicry and territorial song as he perched in a tree (including between bouts of preening - the mimicry included the vocalisations of at least 11 model species), this male also sang with mimicry as it was moving along the ground. It is interesting to note that it repeatedly went to sing from the same perch. In fact the bulk of mimicry that I heard from this male was given whilst away from the display mound (however, it is only one observation!). Other sightings include observing male Superbs mimicking while foraging (e.g. April 2000) and while perched ~5 metres above the ground (afternoon, June 1998). The majority of times I have heard mimicry I haven't seen the bird of course!! Obviously, this may be very different to what is observed with Albert's Lyrebird, with which I believe Syd has the most experience with.

My second point relates to the origin of mimicked sounds. Syd states that "Lyrebirds (both species) learn their mimicry by copying older lyrebirds, not by copying the other species directly, though occasionally new sounds may be added to the local repertoire". This idea has been reiterated by many people and it seems that only with Albert's Lyrebird is there conclusive evidence that individuals copy one another's mimicry (it is known that this occurs in Superb Lyrebirds through circumstantial evidence, e.g. mimicry of species no longer found in the area, lack of mimicry of newly-arrived species, but the extent to which it occurs remains unknown). Therefore, before the above statement can be applied to Superb Lyrebirds the relative importance of conspecific vs heterospecific mimicry needs to be examined as Syd suggests (with Albert's Lyrebird, sharing of mimicked sounds has been clearly demonstrated, and it appears that conspecific mimicry is of greater importance, so Syd's statement may aptly describe mimicry in this species - see comments below about caution using analogies from other species). Robinson and Curtis (1996; Emu 96: 258-275) state that the Satin Bowerbird 'territorial' song is a prominent feature of the sequential song of Albert's Lyrebirds and to quote the authors " Lamington and Tambourine the local bowerbird dialect was accurately reproduced. Comparison elsewhere was not made but accurate local copying would be expected". I would be grateful if Syd could answer: why would local copying be expected if males are just copying from one another's sequential song? (i.e. what was the basis of this statement?).

If I may speculate a little (or propose an hypothesis for testing) it may be that individual males favour mimicking one another (i.e. have a preference for conspecific vs heterospecific mimicry), but also mimic other model species but may only occasionally continue to produce the mimicked sound (and incorporate it into their repertoire, whereas they regularly 'store' mimicry of other male lyrebirds and repeat it - at least with Albert's Lyrebird!), thus changing their repertoire slightly by adding a new sound, which may subsequently be copied into the repertoire of other males, and in this way the song of the species can change over time incorporating new sounds from the present but also retaining sounds from the past (thus explaining how the sounds produced by other species are a major component of lyrebird song). To illustrate: Superbs introduced to Tasmania (1930-40's) continued to include mimicry of Eastern Whipbirds and Pilotbirds in their song (up to at least the 1980's after which it apparently was barely detectable, 1940-1980 is a period greater than the lifespan of a singing adult male i.e. this provides evidence for ?cultural transmission? of mimicry) but have since been noted to mimic several Tasmanian endemics (however, I do not know if this mimicry has been detected during the breeding season or outside of it) illustrating that birds do indeed incorporate mimicked sounds from their environment into their repertoire as well as copying directly from other males.

Lastly, Syd states:
"With Superbs, the mimicry appears to be in random order, but I'm confident that if anyone took the trouble to tape-record and analyse the mimicry from all the individuals in one area, it would be found that they all use the same suite of mimicked sounds". Presumably this statement stems from the knowledge of song sharing (including mimicry) in Albert's Lyrebird (which have far less diversity within an individual in their mimicked sounds than do Superbs). However, I caution using what is known of Albert's Lyrebirds to draw analogies with Superbs. The reason being that congeneric species may have rather different singing strategies, and making assumptions for one species based on what is known for another may lead to a false understanding. To illustrate the point take the lyrebird's sister family the scrub-birds: one species has a singing strategy where the variety in the repertoire of advertisement song is apparent with a relatively small number of songs given within a bout of singing (termed immediate variety), while the other has a singing strategy of eventual variety where songs within a bout are of the same type and one has to listen to several bouts (and consequently many songs) to realise the variety in the repertoire. Secondly, the complexity in the songs of one species is far in excess of that of the other, and the former species also mimics extremely rarely (if at all!) while the second apparently mimics frequently. So it can be seen that with these two closely-related species the singing strategies are very different, which may also occur with the two lyrebird species. In fact we are already aware of appreciable differences in the singing behaviour of the two lyrebirds such as mimicry being in the form of a strict stereotyped song in the Albert's and being less varied, and mimicry being much more random (supposedly) and diverse in the Superb.

I would welcome any comments that people have about what they have observed with Superbs in terms of mimicry.

Cheers, Dean

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