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The lyrebird is either one of two Australian birds named for the lyre-shaped tail of the male. The superb lyre-bird (Menura superba) usually grows to a length of 38 inches. The Albert's lyrebird (M. alberti) is slightly smaller.
The lyre-bird is a remarkable Australian bird allied to the group of typical small perching birds, but forming an order, Menuriiformes, by itself. Both species have a small head, a relatively long neck, and large strong legs and feet. Their plumage is mostly brown with reddish brown on the chin, throat, and chest.
It is nearly the size of a small pheasant and lives on the ground, its food consisting mainly of insects. Its nest, made usually at the foot of a tree or rock, occasionally in a tree, is domed, with a hole at the side. Only one large egg is laid.
The bird takes its name from the likeness of the very long tail-feathers of the cock-bird to a lyre, the outer feather on each side being broad and curved like an S, and the inner feathers thin and scantily barbed. The tail is used in a remarkable series of displays and dances, originally associated with courtship but now extended, apparently, to a purely aesthetic occupation outside the breeding season. Both species inhabit dense rain forest gullies and scrubs.
They were commonly known to the early settlers as pheasants and many were shot for their beautiful tail feathers. The general colour above is brown, the under-parts being a lighter brown.
Adult males can be distinguished from females and young males by the tail, which grows up to 30 inches (76 cm) in length and consists of two large outer feathers which have brown crescent-shaped markings on the upper side, two black wire-like feathers and 12 filamentary feathers which are dark on top and silver underneath, as are the outer tail feathers. This combination of feathers can be erected to give the shape of a lyre, the musical instrument after which the bird was name, though it is seldom carried in this position.
Lyrebirds live in dense forests and feed on worms and insects. They are still plentiful in an area between the Great Dividing Range and the sea from southern Queensland through to the Dandenong Ranges in southern Victoria. Although it is now strictly protected, numbers are decreasing as further areas of forest-land are cleared.
Males occupy territories on the slopes of gullies and each will defend an area of 2 to 10 acres. They make small clearings from which all vegetation is removed and scratch earth up into the form of a low mound some 6 inches (15 cm) high and 36 inches (90 cm) in diameter on which they sing and display. Usually from four to six such mounds, at various vantage points in the territory, are in use at any one time but several more may be built and discarded during the breeding season. These mounds are kept well tended and before a male commences to sing he carefully scratches the surface of the mound until any accumulated litter has been removed. Scratched earth is attractive to the females who will visit mounds and scratch around even when the male is not present.
During courtship the male climbs on a mound of forest debris and begins to sing. It brings its tail forward over its back, touching it to the ground in front of its lowered head. At the end of the display it abruptly folds its tail and walks away.
Breeding takes place from May to October, but principally in the winter months of June and July when the single egg is laid. Where it breeds at high altitudes the large domed nest is often covered with snow. The female builds a covered nest of ferns, sticks, and bark, and she lays a single grayish egg that usually hatches in about six weeks. The egg is remarkably resistant to cold and in the early stages of incubation can be left for 24 hours or more without damage.
Although the nest is large and may measure up to 24 inches (61 cm) in width, nesting females can be distinguished by their bent tail feathers, which are curled round the body when in the nest. Incubation takes about six weeks and the chick spends a further six weeks in the nest which may be on the ground, in an old tree stump, on a cliff ledge, or even at times in a tall tree. Nesting areas are established by the females in the thickly vegetated damp gullies of the forest, near a pool or running stream into which they place the droppings collected from the nestlings.
Lyrebirds are said to have the ability to mimic many sounds such as the noise of axe blows, cross-cut saws, barking dogs, a variety of other bushland noises and nowadays even mobile phone ringtones, but such occurrences are rare except where birds are living close to human settlement.
In the wild mimicry is restricted mainly to the calls of other bird species and the rustling of feathers in flight. Nevertheless the performance is often extraordinary, for example when the bird mimics a chorus of several kookaburras or a flock of parrots passing overhead—- calls, wingbeats and all. Until recently there was a general belief that the extensive use of mimicry served no other purpose than the male's own enjoyment, but recent studies have shown that they select sounds which are strongly directional in character for that part of the song which is directed at rival males. In dense vegetation, in which visibility is reduced to a few feet, the constant output of mimicry forms an effective directional beacon which gives a clear indication of the male's location and of the extent of his territory as he moves from one song point to another. As the female approaches and the song is directed to the now visible mate, different mimicked sounds are used. These do not have such strong directional characteristics, simply serving to retain the attention of the female for a short period until the song merges into a continuous clicking noise of low intensity which may continue for several minutes. This sound is the prelude to copulation which generally takes place near the display mound.
As the male bird pours out is continuous song, which incorporates the calls of many of the forest birds, and slowly gyrates on its mound, even the most objective observer is apt to be carried away and it is easy to understand the many romantic misconceptions which are to be found in some of the lyrebird literature. Most of the male's song and display is directed to rival males, the territorial song with its accompanying stream of mimicry and the very loud 'pilik pilik' calls which accompany full display are largely directed to this end.
They are remarkable for the power, mellowness, and variety of their song, and as mimics of the calls of other birds and of other noises of the forests they have no equals in the bird world.
The New International Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Volume 4, 1954. Page 258.
Merit Students Encyclopedia, Volume 11, P.F. Collier Inc, 1979. Page 341.
Encyclopedia of the Animal World, Volume x, Bay Books, 1977. Page 1150.