Mimicry by Magpie

To: John Tongue <>
Subject: Mimicry by Magpie
From: Syd Curtis <>
Date: Mon, 09 Apr 2007 00:24:26 +1000
Warning:  long posting.  Delete now if not interested in lyrebird mimicry.
> Hi Syd et. al.,
> Have you seen the David Attenborough film clip of a lyrebird imitating
> a car alarm, camera shutter and motor drive, and chainsaw??
> John Tongue
> Hobart
Apologies for starting this hare (my message April 7).  Having done so, I'd
better explain further, even at the risk of repetition.

I wrote that Norman Robinson said in a radio interview "However, in over
 300,000 feet of recorded tape of lyrebird song, I have not found a single
example of a lyrebird imitating a mechanical sound. If any listener has a
recording of such mimicry, I would be grateful to hear from them."

And I commented: "I hardly need to add that he got no response.  Lyrebirds

 As I was writing about mimicry by magpies, I cut corners.  I should have
said "Lyrebirds in the wild don't imitate mechanical sounds of human origin
in their breeding season song."

Young lyrebirds learn to sing by copying adults.  They are not directly
copying the calls of other species, though hearing the other species enables
them to keep the mimicry accurate. If in captivity a male lyrebird cannot
hear adult wild lyrebirds they are likely to imitate what they can hear.  As
Philip Veerman has reminded us, parrots raised by people will copy words but
wild parrots don't mimic.

I think a lyrebird could imitate almost any sound it hears - if it wanted
to.  To my mind one of their most impressive pieces of mimicry is the sound
of feathered wings.  Both species do it to perfection.  One male Albert's
that I studied for several years, regularly did a perfect imitation of the
sound of a large bird flying, and ending with the thump of the bird landing
on a branch.

In the breeding season, male lyrebirds are singing with specific purpose.
They have an extensive repertoire, which is common to all the males in a
particular locality.  Out of the breeding season anything goes, so to speak,
and I can well imagine that a lyrebird might, once only, repeat some
mechanical sound it has just heard.   But they are frustrating animals -
they never seem to do this for ornithologists studying them; only for
persons casually listening ... and not recording the sound.

It is also relevant to note that with some exceptions, like the Sherbrooke
Forest population of Superbs, lyrebirds are very wary and shy birds.  One
does not normally get close to a singing lyrebird.  And sounds change over
distance.  The higher the frequency the more rapidly the sound attenuates
with distance.  This may result in the quality of a lyrebird note heard at a
distance, sounding different to what it does if close.  The "gronk" notes of
an Albert's gronking song may sound like imitation of a dog bark when heard
in the distance, but record the sound with a mic only a meter or two from
the singing bird, and it is nothing like a dog bark.

Of possible interest:  I have a recording of an Albert's Lyrebird in the
wild, imitating human speech.  This was given to me by a friend (now
deceased) who tape-recorded lyrebirds extensively.  The bird's territory was
across a popular walking track in Lamington National Park, where he would
have often heard human conversations.  The recording was made in November -
well outside the breeding season - and in general there are no recognisable
words, but it is clearly imitation of human speech.  And the bird does
appear to 'say' "Hey Bill".  My friend suggested that at some stage Park
maintenance staff working on the walking track included someone called
"Bill", and the bird heard him being called on a number of occasions.

Albert's quite often follow their gronking song with mimicry of native
mammal voiced sounds, and then Grey Shrike-thrush.  One individual in
Lamington that I have been recording since 1984, included last winter,
something that also sounded like imitation of a human voice, and in the
right place in the sequence for a mammal sound.  Though this was in a
different part of the Park to my friend's bird, this one too would often
hear people talking.  So I'm very curious to see if he does something
similar this coming winter breeding season - if he's still alive and well.

May I repeat Norman's plea:  If anyone has a  recording of a lyrebird in the
wild, imitating mechanical sounds, I would be grateful to hear from them.



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