Lyre birds are native to Australia and inhabit eucalyptus forests, where they forage for food among the leaf litter on the forest floor. Along with the spectacular lyre-shaped tail feathers for which they are named, males have one other outstanding feature, although it is not apparent to the eye: they are astonishingly accurate mimics.

In the mating season, male lyre birds entice females by composing a song comprised of many of the sounds heard in the surrounding forest, which will include the songs of other birds, sounds made by other animals, the sounds of rain, thunder, wind, insects, and everything else frequently heard in that part of the forest.

I learned this fact from a television documentary which showed a male in the process of singing his mating song. It was amazing to hear the sound of rain in the trees, then a snatch of birdsong, then the crack of a dry branch, all perfectly reproduced by this shy little brown bird, hidden away in a damp forest somewhere.

And then it produced some new sounds. There was the unmistakable whirr of a chainsaw, the motor of a tractor, the crash of a falling tree. The narrator confirmed this; due to the increase of logging in the area, the males had started to incorporate the sounds made by the loggers into their songs. And the lyre bird had one more new trick: it perfectly imitated the shutter-click and wind-on motor of the still cameras used by the documentary makers.

This struck me as incredibly sad and poignant. Here was this amazing oddity of nature, singing its strange and beautiful song, and right there in the song were the sounds of the inexorable destruction of its environment, along with the sounds of the whole thing being recorded for my personal viewing pleasure. And for posterity.

Unique to Australia, lyrebirds make up the family Menuridae, of which there are only two species. The superb lyrebird, Menura novaehollandiae, is found among the coastal gullies, mountain forests, granite outcrops and open timbered country from south-eastern Queensland to southern Victoria, in particular the Dandenong Ranges. The Prince Albert lyrebird, M. alberti, is restricted to the mountains and rainforests near the coastal border of Queensland and New South Wales. Both species have similar features, the males being about 90 cm long and the females 65 cm in length.

The male superb lyrebird has a long lyre-shaped tail with a web of filamentous central feathers, whereas the Prince Albert lyrebird lacks the lyre-shaped outer tail-feathers and is more rufous-brown in body colour. The females are smaller than the males and have no ornamental tail-feathers.

Despite the large and ornamental tail on adult male birds, Lyrebirds are not most noticed for their appearance. They are fairly reclusive birds that live in thick forest, usually in areas well away from population centers, although I have seen them a few times when walking quietly on small trails in the Blue Mountains.

They are quite common, however, and this can be very apparent when walking along ridgetops in many places in the Great Dividing Range. You'll hear maybe a magpie calling, down in the valley. Then a kookaburra. Then a bell bird. Then a whip bird. A few gutteral cockatoo squawks. All very loud, very clear, acoustically perfect, highly amplified, which is a bit odd, and you can't see any birds in the treetops either. Then comes the giveaway, a rythmic CLUNK-a-CLUNK-a-CLUNK-a.

The culprit for the noise pollution is a male Superb Lyrebird, practising his courtship dance in a six-foot wide patch of open soil he keeps meticulously clear of leaves. He tosses his tail up and over his body, so they mist of fine white feathers droops over him like a veil. He hops around rythmically, shaking the tail feathers, always hiding behind them from any females around. This is extremely rarely seen, of course, although there is some great footage out there - one place I can think of offhand would be David Attenborough's The Life of Birds.

The most astonishing attribute of this species is their ability to perfectly replicate any sound played to them a few times. It's not a harsh immitation of a few syllables, like a talking parrot, instead it has all the fidelity of an analogue master tape. They have beautifully loud, clear, liquid voices, able to replicate the complicated songs of magpies and currawongs, and can also immitate strange, harsh and even completely unnatural sounds. One very comical, if slightly disturbing, segment in the Life of Birds shows a lyrebird demonstrating a perfect redition of an automatic camera winding on, a car alarm, and an axe chopping wood. Any sound repeated in their evironment more than a few times will be picked up, as the males compete to see who can have the most complex and accurate calls.

They are rarely kept in captivity, but one has to wonder at their potential. How many minutes of music can a male lyrebird memorise? There's a challenge for Australian noders.

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