You might be able to do a mean celebrity impression or two, but can you imitate an entire film’s cast at the same time? A male superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) can, well almost. During courtship and even while mating, the birds pull off a similar feat, mimicking the calls and wingbeat noises of many bird species at once, a new study shows.
W hy lyrebirds do this isn’t yet clear, but the finding is the first time that an individual bird has been observed mimicking the sounds of multiple bird species simultaneously. The uncanny acoustic imitation of multispecies flocks adds a layer of complexity to the male lyrebird’s courtship song yet unseen in birds and raises questions about why its remarkable vocal mimicry skills, which include sounds like chainsaws and camera shutters, evolved in the first place.Superb lyrebirds — native to forested parts of southeastern Australia — have a flair for theatrics. The males have exceptionally long, showy tail feathers that are shaken extensively in elaborate mating dances. The musical accompaniment to the dance is predominantly a medley of greatest hits of the songs of other bird species, the function of which behavioral ecologist Anastasia Dalziell was studying via audio and video recordings of the rituals.
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“When you hear lyrebirds, you hear this very loud, very lyrical, dramatic delivery of mimicry of lots of different species of Australian birds,” says Dalziell, of the University of Wollongong in Australia. The strident calls of kookaburras and parrots are common targets. “But when I started to record [lyrebirds] in detail and for very long periods of time, I realized that every now and then they did something completely different.” The lyrebirds would transition into a shorter, quieter song made of fluttering noises and scattered chirping. Dalziell thought it sounded like the mixed species “mobbing flocks” she’d experienced in her fieldwork, where prey birds spot a predator and aggregate into a loud, aggressive contingent that attempts to drive away the threat.
In this recording – taken in Sherbrooke Forest, in Victoria, Australia – a throng of several species of songbirds have aggregated into a noisy mob in response to a threat. Such “mobbing flocks” harass bird predators like snakes and hawks and are a reliable cue of such animals’ presence.