Superb Lyrebird – The Greatest Mimic
Many types of birds incorporate mimicry into their vocal repertoires. However, one species is simply extraordinary in it’s ability to accurately imitate even the most complex of sounds – the Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) of south-eastern Australia.
Famous for it’s rich and beautiful song, this pheasant-sized songbird learns to mimic the sounds of other birds in a way like no other. From the cackling laughter of a Kookaburra, to the strident ‘whipcrack’ of the Eastern Whipbird, Lyrebirds are so accurate that even the original is sometimes fooled (Dalziell, 2012). Up to 80% of the Superb Lyrebird’s song consists of mimicry, and it’s not unusual for an individual male lyrebird to have mastered the calls of 20-25 species of bird.
Listen to Examples of Lyrebird Mimicry
It’s difficult to appreciate the accuracy of a Superb Lyrebird’s mimicry if one doesn’t know what the original sounds like. For this reason I’ve setup some audio comparisons which put the original & the mimic side by side.
Mimicry of Eastern Whipbird (Psophodes olivaceus)
Mimicry of Pacific Baza (Aviceda subcristata)
Mimicry of Grey Goshawk (Accipiter novaehollandiae)
Mimicry of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus)
Mimicry of Australian King Parrot (Alisterus scapularis)
Mimicry of Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans)
Mimicry of Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae)
Mimicry of Noisy Friarbird (Philemon corniculatus)
Mimicry of Green Catbird (Ailuroedus crassirostris)
Mimicry of Satin Bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus)
Mimicry of Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina)
Other Types of Mimicry
Applying their natural ability in an unnatural environment, some captive lyrebirds have learned to imitate not only the calls of their fellow inmates, but also some of the mechanical sounds from nearby human activity. Adelaide Zoo’s famous hand-raised male lyrebird, ‘Chook’, would astound spectators with jaw-droppingly accurate imitations of electric drills, tapping hammers, saws and even whistling workmen. Occasionally, he would even drop his own name “Chook Chook” into the performance! Watch & listen to ‘Chook’ in the video below –
The following clip from the BBC was broadcast in David Attenborough’s “The Life of Birds” and contains an incredible example of a lyrebird mimicking a camera shutter, motor drive and chainsaws. According to some sources, this footage was a composite of a few different birds, probably all captive, but in a natural looking environment. In any case, the mimicry is spectacular and can be seen in the following video –
Reports of Other Sounds
Apart from the sounds listed above, there are numerous accounts of wild birds imitating the sounds of human activity. One interesting story relates to a population of Lyrebirds in northern New South Wales which incorporate the sounds of a flute into their repertoire. According to http://www.flutelyrebird.com/ the explanation for this is as follows –
“..A lyrebird chick was raised in captivity in the 1920s in Australia’s New England Tablelands, or so the story goes. The bird mimicked the sounds of the household’s flute player, learning two tunes and an ascending scale. When released back into the wild, his flute-like songs and timbre spread throughout the local lyrebird population.”
Have a listen to some of the amazing flute lyrebirds on this page – http://www.flutelyrebird.com/flutelyrebird/Audio.html
There are also reports of lyrebirds imitating steam trains in the Blue Mountains and starter motors in northern NSW, but I have not personally heard recordings of such. Not that I dismiss such accounts, as the lyrebird is clearly capable of it, and if wild birds are incorporating unnatural noises into their vocal repertoires then I’m sure it is only a matter of time before such recordings emerge, as the human noise that is reaching their forest homes is becoming ever more pervasive and relentless.