Lyrebird learns rooster call

To: Alan Gillanders <>, Shirley Cook <>, "'Birding Aus'" <>
Subject: Lyrebird learns rooster call
From: Syd Curtis <>
Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 21:49:55 +1000
It is necessary to distinguish between breeding season song, and
non-breeding season song.

Young male lyrebirds learn their breeding season song by listening to the
performances of mature males.  Thus in any one area they all sing the same
tunes.  There are three main components: territorial songs, mimicry, and a
third somewhat strange "song" with strongly rhythmical features dubbed
"plik" song with Superbs and "Gronking" song with Alberts.  (For details see
"The Vocal Displays of the Lyrebirds", Robinson & Curtis, "Emu" Vol. 96, pp

With Superbs the mimicry comes in random order, but with Albert's it is in
fixed order forming a "song' about 40 or 50 seconds long, which is often
repeated over and over without a break.  And all the males in any one area
have the same mimicry song - proof surely, that they learnt their song by
listening to adults.

The mimicry song is mainly aimed at attracting the female(s).  On one
occasion when a female did arrive and I'm reasonably sure copulation finally
took place, the male Albert's I was tape-recording, sang 121 cycles of
mimicry (with only 16 territorial songs and no gronking) occupying one hour
and forty-two minutes.  That's some love serenade!

Albert's perform on 'display platforms' where several thin vines or sticks
are lying loosely on top of each other on the ground - natural situations in
the rainforest habitat for the most part, but I did on one occasion find an
Albert's tramping down a clump of Lawyer-cane (Calamus) to form a platform.
The gronking song includes very soft but strongly rhythmic phrases formed by
alternating two notes - in Lamington N P it is in waltz time: AbbAbbAbb...
but in various other areas I've recorded 2, 4, 5, and 6 "beats to the bar".

And perhaps most remarkable of all, the male may grasp one stick with his
foot and tap it on the one below in perfect time with his voice.  In essence
he's using 'rhythm sticks' to accompany his song.  (O'Reilly's Guesthouse in
Lamington N P, sell a most remarkable Albert Lyrebird DVD/Video, and in one
part you can see the bird pick up a vine and test it before launching into
his gronking song and tapping in time with his voice.

BTW, I've been observing and sound recording Albert's as an ongoing project
that started in 1968 and I have not found a single example, in the  breeding
season song of lyrebirds in the wild, of mimicry of any mechanical sound of
human origin.  (And Norman Robinson who was the CSIRO lyrebird expert made a
similar statement about Superbs.)

They may, however, include mimicry of natural mechanical sounds.  For
example the Albert's population on Tamborine Mountain (inland from the Gold
Coast) include in their breeding season song, a perfect imitation of the
sound of a large bird landing on a thick branch - the flapping of wings
followed by the thud on the branch.  And I have a tape of a Superb in
Girraween NP (Queensland side of the border with NSW) in which he makes a
sound which is remarkably like the noise made by two tree branches rubbing
together in windy conditions.  And both species include voice imitations of
beak snapping, and beak tapping.

Out of the breeding season they may imitate almost anything - but not
regularly.  My mother told me of the the male who used to come into the
rainforest next to her garden after the breeding season each year.  On one
occasion the farmer on the adjoining property started up his ride-on rotary
hoe, and the lyrebird interrupted his singing to give a perfect imitation of
the sound of the starter motor.  "Just once." she said, "He never did it

Fascinating birds, are they not?

Ranger Neville Fenton took me to the "flute" lyrebirds in the 1970s.  I drew
them to the attention of CSIRO's Norman Robinson.   He visited them, taped
their songs, was satisfied the story could be true and gave a talk on ABC
radio about them.  Later the veracity of the story was queried because
similar flute-quality songs were found in lyrebirds 100 km away.  Maybe it's
just a good story.  I'm not an expert on it.  There are others who are.


> From: "Alan Gillanders" <>
> Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 08:37:42 +1000
> To: "Shirley Cook" <>, "'Birding Aus'"
> <>
> Subject: Re: [Birding-Aus] Lyrebird learns rooster call
> Shirley said, >Thanks, Greg, the stories sometimes suffer from the "Chinese
> Whispers"
>> syndrome, don't they?
> The stories and the tune it seems. I wonder how big a population of birds or
> people in close contact and at what repetition rates it would take to
> maintain fidelity.
> Alan 


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