Don’t trust your ears, because this bird’s a lyre.
An Australian lyrebird to be precise, one of nature’s most unbelievable vocal mimics. In the above video, narrated by David Attenborough, a lyrebird mimics a vast array of human sounds, including a camera shutter and a chainsaw. Here’s another lyrebird from the Adelaide zoo mimicking construction sounds. Although this sort of mechano-mimicry is very rare in the wild, it showcases the incredible ability of this bird (and others) to learn and recreate sounds.
This aptly nicknamed “superb lyrebird” has perhaps the most complex syrinx (the birdy version of vocal cords) of any songbird. When males are wooing females during the mating season, they use their mimicry of other bird calls (and occasionally power tools) as a means of vocal competition. If you added a balcony to the mix, it’s almost like something from a romantic Shakespeare scene. But I doth anthropomorphize too much…
Lyrebirds have no idea exactly what they’re mimicking, of course. But Robert Krulwich thinks they might be the “accidental historians” of the bird world, whose songs may hold audible stories of the past.
One notable example: In 1969, an Australian park ranger recorded a lyrebird singing a rather flute-like tune. He sent that recording to songbird researcher Norman Robinson. Here he is in a radio interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp. sharing some lyrebird flute mimicry:
From the park ranger’s original recordings, Robinson was able to pick out two separate popular songs from the 1930’s, “Keel’s Row” and “The Mosquito Dance.” Turns out that decades earlier, a flute-playing farmer had taken that lyrebird as a pet, and the bird “downloaded” the tunes of its human companion into its neural songbook.
Decades after it was released to the wild, that lyrebird sang lost pop songs, a feathered minstrel of the forest. Sure, it didn’t know what it was mimicking, but I’d say it’s a case of culture… for the birds.
Is the lyrebird the best mimic in nature? Maybe. But my money’s still on Michael Winslow: