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Lyrebirds mimicking chainsaws: fact or lie?

The lyrebird is considered one of Australia’s best-known birds — you might recognise them from our 10 cent coin — but do we really know them? Famed for their spectacular courtship display, you may have…

The lyrebird courtship display involves dancing and mimicry. David Cook/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The lyrebird is considered one of Australia’s best-known birds — you might recognise them from our 10 cent coin — but do we really know them? Famed for their spectacular courtship display, you may have seen footage of lyrebirds mimicking human noises such as chainsaws and camera clicks.

But do lyrebirds in the wild really mimic chainsaws? Yes, if you search the internet; no, if you read the literature.

A lyrebird mimicking a chainsaw.

Meet the lyrebirds

There are two species of lyrebird in Australia. The superb lyrebird lives in dense forests in Victoria, across the ACT, and into New South Wales and extreme SE Queensland (they have also been introduced into Tasmania).

The lesser-known Albert’s lyrebird resides in a small, inhospitable area of southern Queensland rainforest from Tamborine Mountain to Lamington National Park.

About the size of a pheasant, lyrebirds use their powerful legs and claws to rake leaf litter for worms, grubs, and insects. These shy ground-dwellers have elaborate and cumbersome tails in the shape of a lyre. Their feathers were much in demand by milliners in previous eras.

Aside from their spectacular tail, lyrebirds are notable for their vocal abilities. Feathers and voice come together in their courtship display, when they bring their tail over their body and head, vibrating it as they sing and dance.

Lyrebirds sing most in the winter (which is their breeding season). They sing to both proclaim a territory and to attract females, and these songs are not innate. Like all songbirds, lyrebirds are vocal learners. Male lyrebirds tend to learn their songs and, intriguingly, even their mimicry of other sounds, from older males rather than directly from their mimicked models.

Master mimics

A number of Australian songbirds mimic other species. Biologists have yet to resolve the function of avian mimicry, and likely there is more than a single function.

What is clear, however, is that lyrebirds have a stunning ability to accurately mimic the sounds of the forests they inhabit. Most of their mimicry is of other avian species: calls, songs, wing beats, and beak claps, which they deliver in quick succession.

The avian sound-producing organ is the syrinx. Instead of the usual four pairs of syringeal muscles of other songbirds, lyrebirds have only three pairs. It is not known if this simplification makes them more adept at mimicry, nor is their motivation to mimic entirely clear. There is no evidence to suggest that lyrebirds attempt to fool other species.

While mimicry forms most of their vocal repertoire, lyrebirds also have their own songs and calls. While the “territorial” song can be melodious, the “invitation-display” call sounds mechanical to human ears. Twanging, clicking, scissors-grinding, thudding, whirring, “blick”-ing, galloping — these noisy or metallic sounds are the lyrebirds’ own and not mimicry. Nevertheless, they are often mistaken for that.

Lyrebirds are shy creatures that live in dense forests. Flickr/Brian Ralphs, CC BY

The chainsaw myth

From whence comes the myth that lyrebirds in the wild mimic chainsaws and other mechanical sounds?

A likely candidate is David Attenborough’s Life of Birds series. In it, Attenborough peers at the bird (and the camera) from behind a tree, whispering to us about the bird mimicking “sounds that he hears from the forest”. We see compelling footage of a bird imitating a camera’s motor drive, a car alarm, and a chainsaw.

This Attenborough moment is highly popular — but hold on! He fails to mention that two of his three lyrebirds were captives, one from Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary and the other from Adelaide Zoo. This latter individual, Chook, was famed for his hammers, drills, and saws, sounds he reputedly acquired when the Zoo’s panda enclosure was built. Hand-raised from a chick, he was also known to do a car alarm, as well as a human voice intoning “hello, Chook!” He died in 2011, aged 32.

The fact that lyrebirds in captivity mimic human machines and voices with such fidelity should be a substantial enough achievement to warrant our awe.

Back in the wild

We like lyrebirds so much, they’re on our money. Flickr/Ben Jeffrey, CC BY-NC-ND

There is only one suggested example of imitation of a man-made sound in a lyrebird’s territorial song — wild or captive — that of the “flute lyrebirds” of the New England Tablelands. This extraordinarily complex song consists of flute-like tone colours.

How have we humans made sense of this?

A lyrebird chick was raised in captivity in the 1920s. It mimicked 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 Tablelands’ lyrebird population — or so the story goes.

I participate in a research group that is mapping the “flute lyrebird” territory and studying the origins of this story. Our recent article was unable to consolidate the conflicting memories and recorded anecdotes of credible witnesses.

Nevertheless, every winter the rugged, misty rainforests of the New England Tablelands resound with flute-like timbres, contrapuntal overlapping scales, and melodic contours (often with a musical competence exceeding what a human flautist could achieve) that are poles apart from the territorial songs of the rest of the species.

Do wild lyrebirds mimic machinery and the like? While I can imagine that in rare circumstances their vocalisations could reflect the human impact on their environment (and there are such anecdotes), there is no known recording of a lyrebird in the wild mimicking man-made mechanical sounds. Nevertheless, belief in such a phenomenon is now so well established on the internet that it even crops up on official sites.

Read more about the flute lyrebirds here

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Jim Inglis

    retired

    Thanks for a wonderful article Hollis.

    We are lucky enough to get serenaded by the Albert's Lyrebird regularly but I suspect that it is not quite as good a mimic as the Superb.

    It does seem though as if the mimicry is passed on down the generations [father to son] rather than learnt by each bird from its surrounding environment, because of some of the birds they mimic.

    The local numbers of mature males are holding up well and assuming there is a female for every calling male, we had 67 pairs at last count which we do during mating.

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  2. Duanne White

    Lecturer

    I've twice heard wild lyrebirds imitate sounds that at were pretty convincingly man made, particularly given the location they were in.

    Once in the early morning on the snowy mountains highway above Bega (-36.597,149.444), where it was mimicing the sound of a trucks engine brakes.

    The other was near Bowens Creek in the blue mountains (-33.543,150.370), serenading us with the sound of a car starter motor.

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  3. Chris Owens

    Professional

    Enjoyed the observations note in this piece. I have never known our local (South Gippsland) lyrebirds to mimic human sounds, although our patch of bush is pretty remote with few permanent residents or disturbance. I find the lyrebirds to be an intellegent, curious bird, often apparently observing us unnoticed for some time before revealing their presence. We have also enjoyed performances which due to the circumstances were obviously intended for our benefit.

    Regarding mimicking of human sounds…

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    1. wilma western

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Chris Owens

      We have an old record called "songs of the Lyre bird" which includes mechanical type sounds- it predates Attenborough's programme. Also have heard " motor drive" and mobile telephone-like sounds from lyrebirds near houses in bush areas in West Gippsland.

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  4. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Writer

    Hi Hollis,

    My wife and I lived in Far East Gippsland, and are in little doubt that a lyre bird could feasibly mimic a chain saw. The best people to ask would be small timber mills with bush still around them, though they often have dogs that would keep lyre birds away.

    Our experience was commonly one of hearing the songs of five different bird species, in sequence, coming from the one hiding place - without seeing it, we could positively identify the lyre bird on that basis alone.

    Though…

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  5. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Not too sure about any of this to be honest ... I'd have a hunch that lyrebirds will imitate anything that they hear on a regular basis in their territory.

    What has always mystified me about these critters is this notion of "learning" ... the word is used here. But is that what they do?

    Does juvenile birds have to practise? Does a new sound require a couple of hours to get perfect?

    I've spent a lot of time around lyrebirds in the bush with them living in close proximity and I've never…

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Maybe you'll be surer Peter when you next hear a Lyrebird singing to the tune of " Stop the Boats "

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  6. catherine mcdonald

    logged in via Twitter

    Hi Hollis
    Interesting article. I am certain that I have heard lyre birds imitate chainsaws although I have no recording of it. (So not really scientific) The bush next to the family farm in the strzelecki ranges (Darlimurla) has been extensively logged and there is a least one bird that used to regularly mimic chainsaws and occasionally motorbikes - also popular in the area. Alas the native terrain has been so devastated by the "timber" industry there is little habitat left and although I know of at least one adult holding on - I wonder how much longer they can survive in the area.

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  7. Simon Crisp

    Clinical Psychologist at Deakin University

    Great article Hollis, thank you. I have heard human sounds from Lyrebirds at the Cathedral Ranges in Victoria at a site called "The Farmyard" which has been so named because for years the Lyrebirds have mimicked the farm sounds from the valley below: tractors, etc. I can not recall hearing a chainsaw in particular, however.

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  8. Wynne Russell

    Policy and research analyst

    Fascinating article, thanks so much! Like Simon Crisp, I have heard lyrebirds imitating tractors, motorbikes, and cows at The Farmyard in the Cathedral Ranges in Victoria. This was between 1992 and 1995.

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  9. Jon Rose

    musician

    There are a couple of notions from Hollis here that fit hand in glove.
    1. Baudrillard posited that (paraphrasing) unless it appeared on TV, it probably didn't happen. Attenborough is creating TV entertainment and he doesn't care if facts don't fit with the script, out they go. But then we suck it up as pseudo science because we prefer a good story rather than scientific research.
    2. Both species of Lyrebird have the ability to learn and present a simulacrum of compressed audio events and by changing…

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    1. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Jon Rose

      I learnt about Lyrebirds at primary school, have heard them in the bush, but this article and the comments - for just a brief minute- let me drift back to the one time I saw one in the wild, he/she crossing a road while I was driving.
      Thankfully I was only driving the computer when I went in to reminiscence drift!.
      It was a nice break from the daily drudgery, and hearing all the political nasties etc, so thanks.

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  10. Eric Vanderduys

    Research Projects Officer at CSIRO

    Hi Hollis,
    I'd be very surprised if lyrebirds in the wild don't imitate artificial noises in the same way that they do in captivity, provided of course they have access to the source noises. I watched a talk by Ana Dalziell (James Cook Uni at the time) quantifying the mimicry of lyrebirds and how they mimicked at certain times and only did their own call at others – I was struck by how similar this pattern is to many other passerines, especially bowerbirds. ...and this is my segue to a spotted…

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    1. Hollis Taylor

      Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Eric Vanderduys

      Dear All,

      ‘This is indeed a mystery’, I remarked. ‘What do you imagine that it means?’ ‘I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’ (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

      Thank you for your valuable feedback. Lyrebirds and mimicry bring together the oral tradition and vocal learning, one-offs versus stereotypical averages, originality/creativity versus…

      Read more
  11. Peter Banks

    retired Civil Engineer

    During the 1950s at the schools I attended the lyrebirds' mimicry talents were discussed, if not actually taught, as fact. Though usually it was the whine of sawmills and the chopping of axes which were prominent.

    And most of the old (and middle aged) men I knew who had worked in the bush back of the Illawarra in NSW had tales of hearing billies boiling, axemen or sawyers at work, and such like. But it seems from memory that the imitations were always of sounds that had been much repeated in the same place. Caged cockies did similar mimicry, though not nearly as well.

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    1. Peter Banks

      retired Civil Engineer

      In reply to Peter Banks

      Missed a bit.
      Though usually it was the whine of sawmills and the chopping of axes which were prominent, not chainsaws - they hardly existed there then. Well in advance of Mr Attenborough's works too.

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  12. JB Rawson

    Writer

    Great article - thanks so much for this, and the lovely, thoughtful comments that followed.

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