The Sketch

The Superb Lyrebird: An Artist With Commercial Appeal

It's safe to say that no bird on earth can rival the viral potency of the Superb Lyrebird. In fact, there aren’t even that many humans who can claim the millions of Youtube views the lyrebird has amassed, thanks to its otherworldly ability to mimic sounds from its environment. Other birdsongs, camera shutters, car alarms, and even chainsaws have found their way into the lyrebird's repertoire, making the southeast Australian woodland songbird the Michael Winslow of the avian kingdom. 

Back when British colonialists first took notice of the lyrebird, around 1800, they prized its physical beauty, not its mimetic talents. Sharing his first scientific description and illustrations of what he called Menura superba with the Royal Linnean Society of London, Major General Thomas Davies enthusiastically described the bird’s lavish 16-feather tail, which is comprised of two broad brown feathers that curve—like a lyre—around a diaphanous white fan. (One sniffy zoologist was less impressed, and suggested that Menura vulgaris might be a more fitting name.)

Soon enough, the lyrebird's lovely tail feathers adorned the hats of the more stylish women from Sydney to London, but it took a little longer for people to catch on to its vocal skills. The first recording of the lyrebird in its natural habitat emerged in 1931, when amateur filmmaker Ray Littlejohns collaborated with Michael Sharland of the Sydney Morning Herald to capture 11 minutes of audio, which they shared on a radio broadcast to the entire Australian continent. 

These early recordings of lyrebird songs show off the bird’s uncanny ability to imitate as many as 20 other species, including the Kookaburra, the Australian Thrush, and the Whipbird. These imitations are so good that they can even fool the bird they're mimicking, and they’re even more impressive when you consider that lyrebirds actually pass down their impressions from one generation to the next. For several decades after lyrebirds were introduced to Tasmania in the 1930s, successive generations continued to mimic the call of the Eastern Whipbird, which lives only on the mainland. (The skill doesn't carry on forever, though—by the 1980s, the lyrebird's whipbird impression had become so altered as to be almost unrecognizable.) 

Like any good musician, the lyrebird uses these talents mainly for courtship, and during the peak of the breeding season, from June to August, males can be heard singing for up to four hours a day, incorporating the calls of other birds into their own “original” songs. Driven by the whims of generations of choosy females, they have incorporated these numbers into elaborate courtship displays that include precise choreography designed to woo prospective mates to their little mounds of nuptial dirt.

Imitating other birds may work for seducing mates, but it’s the lyrebird’s ability to pick up sounds from our own world that’s captured the fascination of humans, going back to the turn of the century, when musicians began training the birds to imitate them. Lore has it that in the 1920s, a young flutist adopted a pet lyrebird at his home in New South Wales, and then released it into the wild after it had learned to imitate an ascending musical scale and sing two songs, “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance.” According to the story, the bird then taught the trick to others, impressing neighbors and naturalists alike.

Ornithologists today are generally skeptical of stories like this, though. Our scientific Bible, the Handbook of the Birds of the World, notes that accounts of lyrebirds mimicking human noises are often exaggerated, and there are few cases of wild lyrebirds imitating us—of the birds in David Attenborough’s famous video above, the only two that mimic man-made sounds were both captive. (One, named Chook, apparently learned several mechanical sounds during the construction of the Adelaide Zoo’s panda enclosure.)

Lyrebirds may rarely mimic humans, but when they do, and happen to be recorded, they are instant crowd-pleasers. The BBC’s video has surpassed 14 million views, and new ones crop up every few months with similar numbers—people just can’t get enough. And while you could argue that replicating the sound of a laser gun may not be the lyrebird’s highest artistic calling, that it isn’t really representative of the bird’s true talents, maybe it’s better to just relax and be happy that the lyrebird’s getting some love, no matter the reason. In avian conservation, that’s half the battle.

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