Birdsong at its best
From chainsaws, construction sounds, car alarms and camera shutters, to dogs barking and the songs of other birds, it seems that there is no sound that the Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) cannot mimic. The mimicry of human voices is rare though. This native Australian ground-dwelling bird’s most distinctive behavioural trait is its ability to mimic a variety of natural and artificial sounds. In addition, males have a huge and colourful fan-shaped tail, which spreads out during its courtship display.
The lyrebird has the most complexly muscled syrinx out of the Passerines (songbirds), and thus is unrivaled in vocal mimicry, with the exception of the magpie. In terms of accuracy, the magpie’s mimicry is realistic whereas the lyrebird’s is impressionistic. (Kaplan, 1999)
Why do lyrebirds imitate sounds from others? Lyrebirds, along with songbirds with similar capabilities, engage in mimicry for various reasons. The first is for survival functions. Birds may mimic other animals that may be their predators to confuse them and safeguard its territory. The second reason is because of the breeding season; male lyrebirds sing entire repertories of songs and sounds in order to attract females to mate. The peak of the breeding season, which occurs from June to August, is when lyrebirds sing most intensely, for up to 4 hours a day. And perhaps the most interesting to note is, mimicry is intentionally learned and practiced by the lyrebirds, and not mistakenly copying other species’ songs. (Kaplan, 1999)
While people can be fascinated at the superb ability of birds in mimicking sounds, such a practice may become a headache if the birds practice their mimicry just outside your home. This is seen in this case of the blackbird in Britain, which usually rarely uses its mimicking abilities at all. (Daily Mail Reporter, 2008)
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Kaplan, G.,1999. Song structure and function of mimicry in the Australian magpie: compared to the lyrebird. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 12(4): 223-238.
Daily Mail Reporter, 2008. Blackbird that can mimic the sound of ambulance’s siren makes family’s life hell. Mail Online, 10 July 2008. URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1034151/Blackbird-mimic-sound-ambulances-siren-makes-familys-life-hell.html (accessed on 8 April 2013).