Lyrebirds learning artificial sounds

To: "Richard & Roz" <>
Subject: Lyrebirds learning artificial sounds
From: Carl Clifford <>
Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 12:02:56 +1100

I have personally heard a Superb Lyrebird imitate the cut of a portable circular saw rig, near Comboyne, NSW, in 1981. The saw rig was being used by a couple who were building a house on a bush block. They mentioned the bird to me when I was doing the '81 census up there. The couple had been using the saw on weekends for some 6 months before they happened to hear a circular saw riff in the usual repertoire of their resident Lyrebird. The bird seemed to like the sound that the saw made as it first bit into the timber. Fascinating to hear the sound suddenly pop out amongst all the other natural riffs.

I don't think that mimicry of artificial sounds should be dismissed purely on the grounds of not being able to hear a recording. There are a lot of Lyrebirds out there and very few sound recordists out in the bush. Unfortunately not many birders go out with a Nagra in their back pocket.


Carl Clifford

On 11/02/2010, at 10:12 AM, Richard & Roz wrote:

Hi everyone

I had a lively email discussion with the producer of 'Life of Birds' about the lyrebirds mimicing mechanical sounds in the programme. He did admit that the birds they used were raised in captivity, and I have since learnt more about the 'camera shutter' bird at Healesville and the 'chainsaw' bird at Adelaide Zoo. He did say, however, that 'everyone knows that lyrebirds mimic things like chainsaws' - and I suspect that this was David Attenborough's belief - probably passed to him by people he met in Oz when he came over to help make the programme. I have yet to hear a recording of a wild lyrebird mimicing a mechanical sound, but the 'Life of Birds' gave the definite impression that David Attenborough believed they did. It has now become a matter of deep faith amongst people who have seen the programme (and others from earlier times as well), which is impossible to shake. Such a belief appears all over the place - from 'official' national parks signs and information - even to the website of the BA Atlas. Please, please can someone play me a recording of a wild lyrebird mimicing a mechanical sound - not just a belief that someone had definitely heard such a recording in the past!

The story of the 'flute-playing' lyrebird of Dorrigo is a different kettle of bananas. I have heard all the relevant recordings, and the bird in question is very convincing - especially when played alongside the popular tune that it was supposedly mimicing. It is possible that some of the lyrebirds in the immediate vicinity picked up elements of this mimicry for a while. There is a flute-like call in the birds' own repertoire which can be heard in wild birds from Dorrigo to Werrikimbe, and it would not take much modification of this to be quite close to the tune in question. However, my work on the mimicry of Tasmanian lyrebirds, which were taken to the forests of southern Tassie from Victoria a bit over 60 years ago, has shown that mimiced calls fade quickly from the repertoire of lyrebirds in the absence of reinforcement from the original model (although there was evidence, however, of some residual 'whipbird' in the birds I listened to recently in Tasmania).

The 'flute-like' call is, however, quite an extraordinary one, and I have set aside all of June this year to follow it through it's entire range - which is fortunately not far from where I live - and to make a collection of sound recordings. Maybe I will be convinced that the Superb Lyrebird so loves the sound of the flute that it has incorporated it into its own 'permanent' repertoire. We shall see.

Richard (the skeptic)

Richard Jordan
PO Box 449
NSW 2454

tel (02) 6655 9456
mob 042 838 5677

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