Anything you can do, I can do better! Found frequently in Australia’s wet and temperate forest, male superb lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae) have evolved to produce an ever-escalating array of vocalizations and dance moves to impress females and stand out against other males. BBC Wildlife first showcased these intelligent, mimicking birds in a video that has accumulated over 20 million views on YouTube. While watching the sheer beauty of this flightless bird’s courtship displays, it’s hard not to wonder how it is capable of producing sounds that most closely resemble a toddler trying out the words and sounds that adults make around them.
Given the brilliance of their courtship displays, male birds have historically been the main focus among scientific literature. It takes male lyrebirds up to nine years to acquire adult plumage . In this time, they can learn from older birds leaving researchers intrigued by the idea that song and mimicry are passed from one generation to another . This idea was further reinforced when differences in the repertoire of observed mimicry was discovered among lyrebird age classes .
What is not demonstrated in the now famous BBC video is the superb lyrebird’s ability to forage and the positive effect they have on the ecosystems they live in. They have been described as “ecosystem engineers” for the large amounts of soil and litter they turn over . In some regions, superb lyrebirds eat mushrooms and other fungi. By eating (and later pooping out!) the spores of important fungi, they play a crucial role in moving the fungi through the ecosystem . In other areas, lyrebirds also consume insects and smaller ectothermic vertebrates (such as baby snakes or lizards) which require some “street smarts” as it is pretty tricky to catch these prey . Have you ever tried to catch a baby snake?
While the superb lyrebird has never aced a standardized test, research on their behavior suggests that they are indeed pretty brainy. In a study monitoring the superb lyrebird’s tendency to disturb rocks, they found that they were more likely to disturb rocks in areas where they previously encountered tasty snakes . They will also attack toy snakes, suggesting that these birds are dependent on vision to identify food sources rather than scent. Nonetheless, despite the challenges of flipping over rocks, this go-getter approach to hunting is well worth it if there is a food hiding underneath.
On top of their “street smarts” and juggernaut, go-getter hunting behavior, it is still the lyrebird’s courtship display that steals the show. In these displays, males entice females both visually and auditorily. The multi-modal nature of their displays has led researchers to link it to the deep cognitive connection between music and dance-like movement in humans . Although not proven, couldn’t the same claim be made of these birds?
Forest fires and climate change are challenging this bird’s existence. However, for now, Australia’s forest floors remain a lively playground for these lyrebirds to continue producing displays that are truly superb.
My name is Ahria’ Simons. I grew up in Bermuda, so birds have always been a popular topic of school social studies conversations. In primary school, I remember building bluebird (Sialia sialis) boxes and bird watching when I watched in the park. Now a college student, I decided to research the Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) for my Exotic Sensory Systems final project. It was exciting learning about the bird and its incredible mimicking ability. The goal was to learn about its perception of the environment and its umwelt. Given human tendency to anthropomorphize, I looked to rely more on science than inferences.
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Main cover image source
[Edited by Amelia Munson]