Today we take a listen to field recordings of the superb lyrebird, an Australian songbird known for its elaborate vocal displays and mimicry of other species’ songs.
Sir David Attenborough once said that the superb lyrebird has one of “the most elaborate, the most complex, the most beautiful song[s] in the world.” The superb lyrebird is one of the largest songbirds in the world, noted for its elaborate tail and excellent mimicry of not just other birds but also sounds it hears in its environment — including the chainsaws of loggers and the shutter clicks of cameras.
Our guest is Anastasia Dalziell, an ornithologist who has studied the superb lyrebird extensively. Males of the species clear a patch of forest floor for their stage, and sing their complex songs — for which they often borrow the songs of other species — to attract a mate. Dalziell has actually documented that the mimicry is so precise that even members of the species being imitated are fooled by superb lyrebirds’ calls.
But female superb lyrebirds are also known to sing songs, and to produce calls that capably mimic other species as well as sounds from their environment, such as the creaking of trees blowing in the wind. We know very little about the vocal displays of female songbirds, however, which Dalziell chalks up to geographical bias in past research.
While male superb lyrebirds sing and dance to attract a mate, females have their own reasons for singing and imitating other species. In this Field Notes segment, Anastasia Dalziell tells us all about why scientists think male and female lyrebirds sing their songs and imitate other species — and plays a number of lyrebird songs that she’s recorded out in the field so you can hear their mimicry for yourself.
Dalziell is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wollongong in Australia as well as a lab associate at the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the United States. She’s published her findings on lyrebirds in a series of research papers (see below for citations).
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• Dalziell, A. H., & Magrath, R. D. (2012). Fooling the experts: accurate vocal mimicry in the song of the superb lyrebird, Menura novaehollandiae. Animal Behaviour, 83(6), 1401-1410. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.03.009
• Dalziell, A. H., Peters, R. A., Cockburn, A., Dorland, A. D., Maisey, A. C., & Magrath, R. D. (2013). Dance choreography is coordinated with song repertoire in a complex avian display. Current Biology, 23(12), 1132-1135. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.05.018
• Dalziell, A. H., & Welbergen, J. A. (2016). Elaborate mimetic vocal displays by female Superb Lyrebirds. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 4, 34. doi:10.3389/fevo.2016.00034
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