the best performer you’ve never heard of

Am I not pretty enough? This article is part of The Conversation series introducing you to Australia’s unloved animals who need our help.

Mention the beautiful lyrebird, and you’ll likely hear comments about their strange imitation of human sounds, their presence on the dime, and their beautiful tail. Much less known – but equally impressive, if not more so – is Albert’s Lyrebird.

Like the superb lyrebird, Albert’s lyrebird performs spectacular dance displays and, as our latest research shows, produces amazing mimicry of the sounds of its environment. Albert’s Lyrebird is part of an ancient line of songbirds and even caught the attention of Charles Darwin himself.

While the superb lyrebird is notoriously shy, Albert’s lyrebird is even more elusive and is found only in a small region of subtropical rainforest hidden in the highlands of Bundjalung country on the border between New South Wales and Queensland.

Unfortunately, historic clearings and recent bushfires have threatened this species, and a lack of information may hamper its conservation. So let us introduce you to this shy performer and convince you that Albert’s lyrebird deserves as much attention as its star-stealing sister species.

A male Albert’s Lyrebird on display.
Alex Maisey

Impressive displays

Albert’s Lyrebird (menura albertilisten)) is a large, ground-dwelling bird that forages by scratching the soft, leaf-strewn forest floor.

Both sexes have deep auburn-red feathers, and the male sports a showy tail made of silver threadlike feathers that create a cascading effect over his head during his courtship display. The display also reveals a bright patch of flame-shaped orange feathers under its tail.

As superb lyres, male Albert lyres come into play in mid-winter. Hidden in the thick rainforest vegetation, they use clusters of vines or sticks as a platform to perform. Male Albert’s Lyrebird then sings a remarkable song.

Impressively, they can accurately imitate up to 11 different species, including satin birdbirds, Australian king parrots, crimson rosellas and kookaburras, among others.

They also mimic several vocalizations of each species, as well as unvoiced sounds such as wing flapping. In fact, a lyrebird can imitate up to 37 different sounds!

Read more: The imitators among us – birds pirate songs for personal gain

A male Albert’s Lyrebird mimicking on his display platform.

Drama and “Whistle Songs”

In our latest research, we show that each man organizes his mimicry in a particular order that is repeated over and over throughout a performance. Moreover, all males in the same location perform their mimicry in a similar order, suggesting that this sequence is learned from neighboring males.

For example, lyrebirds at Binna Burra in Lamington National Park often mimic a kookaburra, followed by an eastern yellow robin, wing flapping, and the “tsit” of a green catbird. . You can hear this shared footage in the recordings below.

Binna Burra bird A imitating a kookaburra, a robin, flapping wings and a catbird.
Author Provided: Fiona Backhouse103 KB (To download)

Binna Burra’s Bird B mimicking the same sequence.
Author Provided: Fiona Backhouse181 KB (To download)

Binna Burra’s Bird C imitating the same sequence again.
Author Provided: Fiona Backhouse219 KB (To download)

We also found that males command their mimicry to place contrasting calls together in sequence. This probably increases the “drama” and highlights the male’s virtuosity through the wide variety of sounds he can produce.

Lyrebirds not only imitate, but also sing their own songs, including their prominent whistle song – a striking melody we might hum or whistle, and during the dawn chorus, the whistle songs of each bird – lyre echo around the escarpments of their range.

These songs also vary from region to region, so each population has its unique set of whistle songs shared among local men, which you can hear in the recordings below.

A whistle song from Mount Jerusalem.
Author provided112 KB (To download)

A Lamington whistle song.
Author provided119 KB (To download)

A whistle song from Goomburra.
Author provided135 KB (To download)

It’s not just the males that sing – female lyrebirds are shamefully underrated. Like female superb lyres, female Albert’s lyres both sing their own song and mimic the sounds of other birds.

They often seem to mimic the alarm calls of eastern whipbirds, as well as northern goshawks, a ferocious predator of lyrebirds.

Although Albert’s lyrebird is most notable for its extravagant plumes and vocal virtuosity, it probably also plays an important role in the local ecosystem.

The superb lyrebirds are ‘ecosystem engineers’, turning up the ground as they forage with their powerful claws, which can reduce fuel from bushfires. Albert’s lyrebirds also rake the forest floor when feeding and are likely to have similar impacts.

A male Albert’s Lyrebird using its powerful claws to forage in leaf litter.
Alex Maisey

An endangered species

Since European settlement, Albert’s lyrebirds have endured a history of land clearing for agriculture, and were even shot once to be put into pies!

As a result, they are listed nationally as ‘near threatened’, although this list worsens to ‘vulnerable’ in New South Wales, where the smallest population is around 10 individuals.

The devastating 2019-2020 bushfires that engulfed the east coast of Australia burned around 32% of Albert’s lyrebird habitat. As a result, Albert’s lyrebirds have now been listed as one of 13 priority bird species in need of urgent post-fire management.

Now more than ever, it is important to fully understand the behavior and ecology of this species to ensure its survival.

(Left) The Main Range National Park escarpment, typical habitat for Albert’s lyrebird. Photo taken before the 2019-2020 bushfires. (Right) Smoke from burning bushfires throughout Albert’s lyrebird range in November 2019. Imagery derived from NASA’s worldview.
Fiona Backhouse/NASA Worldview

What can we do?

Albert’s lyrebird has escaped much of the public eye and likely suffered severe habitat loss after the fires. However, there is good news.

Citizen science initiatives in local council areas are helping to more accurately map Albert’s Lyrebird occurrences and improve habitat quality and connectivity by eliminating weeds.

Read more: Click through the tragic stories of 119 species still struggling after Dark Summer in this interactive (and how to help)

Albert’s Lyrebirds are not only important as individual species, they also provide a complete soundscape through their diverse mimetic repertoires which they can perform for over an hour at a time.

They provide a soundtrack to our declining ancient rainforests and are an important part of Australia’s natural and cultural history. Let’s ensure that the next generation has the opportunity to meet this shy sister of the superb lyrebird.

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