I was carefully trawling the depths of Youtube the other day, when I came across this lovely video of a lyrebird demonstrating its fantastic vocal repertoire.
Intrigued by the video, I went on to dig up some information on the lyrebird. There are two species of lyrebird, the Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) and the Albert’s Lyrebird (Menura alberti); the photo above is a picture of a male Superb Lyrebird putting on a mating display. The photographer notes that it performed a repertoire that included “ [the] Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Grey Butcherbird, Crimson Rosella, Grey Shrike-thrush, Eastern Whipbird, Pilotbird, [and] Gang-gang amongst others.”
As can be seen in the photo, when putting on a courtship display, the male lyrebird spreads its tail out and fans it over itself before launching into a display of its vocal ability – according to some sources, this display may last as long as twenty minutes.
Intrigued by the idea of vocal mimicry, I went to scour the Internet for more information, and discovered an article entitled “Vocal mimicry in songbirds”, published in 2008, which suggests several reasons why birds might engage in vocal mimicry. Reasons suggested include deterrence of potential intruders or competitors; however, one of the suggested reasons pertaining to the lyrebird is that they use their mimicry for “maintaining contact in the dense rainforest in which they live” (Kelley, Coe, Madden and Healy, 2008). However, the article also acknowledges that this reason is still highly open to debate and that there is insufficient data to officially prove this claim (and that there has not been enough information to support any one claim of the importance of vocal mimicry for the past twenty-six years, which is a fairly daunting period of time). Which, sadly, leaves me hanging, wondering if any more new information will be turned up.
“Attenborough: the amazing lyrebird sings like a chainsaw,” by BBCEarth. BBC Earth Youtube channel (18 May 2009). URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSB71jNq-yQ (accessed on 3 April 2010)
Coe, Rebecca L., Healy, Susan D., Kelley, Laura A., and Madden, Joah R., 2008. “Vocal mimicry of songbirds.” Animal Behaviour, 76(3): 521-528.
“Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae),” by kookr. Flickr, August 29 2009. URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kookr/3866749339/ (accessed 4 April 2010.)