Lyrebirds learning artificial sounds

To: "'Richard & Roz'" <>, <>
Subject: Lyrebirds learning artificial sounds
From: "Jon Irvine" <>
Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 12:31:50 +1100
Hi Richard,

Unfortunately I do not have a recording but one of my first acquaintances
with a Superb Lyrebird in the Blue Mountains (I think it was 1995) turned
out to be quite an extraordinary one. I was walking with my work colleague
on the Ruined Castle Track out of Katoomba and we heard the sound of a
helicopter further along the track. The noise was not coming from the sky
but a specific spot on the forest floor. On our approach the noise stopped
but I could hear the scraping of leaves followed by the typical mix of
lyrebird sounds. The bird did not make the helicopter noise again but I am
convinced that it was the bird that made it. What was extraordinary was that
both my colleague and I were first absolutely convinced that it was a
helicopter; the sound was so convincing that it even had a Doppler effect as
if the helicopter was flying overhead. We both perceived it coming from the
ground about 30 metres distant, at the exact spot that we later saw the

This will surely put me in the same league as UFO chasers and alien
abductionists. But what are the other plausible explanations? It was
definitely not an actual helicopter with perhaps the geometry of the
landscape producing strange audio effects because the noise stopped dead, as
if a recording had suddenly been turned off. This leads me to the only other
plausible explanation I can think: that someone was in there with a
recording of a helicopter maybe actually trying to get the lyrebird to mimic


Jon Irvine

-----Original Message-----
 On Behalf Of Richard & Roz
Sent: 11 February 2010 10:13
Subject: Lyrebirds learning artificial sounds

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

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

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

To unsubscribe from this mailing list,
send the message:
(in the body of the message, with no Subject line)

To unsubscribe from this mailing list,
send the message:
(in the body of the message, with no Subject line)
<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>

The University of NSW School of Computer and Engineering takes no responsibility for the contents of this archive. It is purely a compilation of material sent by many people to the birding-aus mailing list. It has not been checked for accuracy nor its content verified in any way. If you wish to get material removed from the archive or have other queries about the archive e-mail Andrew Taylor at this address: andrewt@cse.unsw.EDU.AU