National Geographic : 1955 Jun
Lyrebird, Australia's Meistersinger brant with varicolored songsters and gay beneath the blue of a September sky. It can sound harsh as trees fight the angry winds of July, a winter month in Australia. Muffled in winter fog, it becomes cold and forbidding. To know Sherbrooke, you must roam its wide expanses, smell its fragrance in spring and autumn, and see the iridescent hues of dewdrops glistening on tree ferns or suspended like jewels in a delicate spider web. You must lie on the forest floor and gaze up through spreading branches, waiting for a lyrebird to begin its song. As a songster, the lyrebird, particularly the male, is justly famous; but its song is only part of its charm. The glittering display of the silvery filaments of its tail is a deeply moving spectacle (opposite). Myth of the Musical Tail Ever since this remarkable creature was dis covered in the newly founded colony of New South Wales 157 years ago, visitors from over seas have made special efforts to see and hear it. The first recorded specimen collected by a white man was taken in 1798, 10 years after the colony was founded. John Gould, often called the father of Aus tralian ornithology, devoted considerable time in 1838-40 to a search for the lyrebird. But because of the rugged nature of the country and the extreme timidity of the bird, he ob tained only a few specimens. The lyrebird's song was a great mystery to early observers or, rather, listeners, for there were few indeed who reported seeing the bird displaying and singing. One wild story was that the lyrebird made his song by moving his tail feathers in the breeze. Even now, as one sees the bird pour ing forth his melody with effortless precision and observes his throat rippling, it is almost impossible to understand how he does it. There are two species: the Superb Lyre bird, Menura novae-hollandiae, the more com mon, found in Victoria and New South Wales; and the Albert Lyrebird, M. alberti, first named by John Gould in honor of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort. This species is confined to northeastern New South Wales and southeast Queensland. The two species have much in common. Both are gifted songsters and superb mimics. The males have 16 feathers in the tail, con sisting of two lyrate feathers, two fine whip like feathers, and 12 filamentary feathers. There are, however, striking differences. The broad side feathers of the Superb are about 30 inches long. They are marked with a series of V-like "windows" and are beauti fully colored on the underside. Birds pic tured on these pages are all Superb. The feathers of the Albert are much shorter than those of the Superb, and are a plain sil very blue-gray on the underside, without other markings except a black tip. The body of the Superb is a grayish brown on top, gray on the neck, with a coppery tinge across the shoulders and on the end of the wings; the crown of the head is dark brown to black. The Albert is much more colorful. The back is coppery to rufous, and there is a rufous patch beneath the throat. The under coverts of the tail are also a bright rufous. Lyrebirds ordinarily begin mating in May. Naturally the breeding season is the period of greatest emotional activity. Observations on many pairs indicate they are mated for life; yet every year at the beginning of win ter the male birds woo their mates ardently. How the Male Builds His Mound Frequently during this period the male leaves his feeding ground and runs to sing and display on a mound he has constructed amid the ferns or bracken. In preparing the mound, the bird first clears the ground by breaking off the bracken with his claws and digging out the roots. Then he scratches earth toward the center of the clear ing, piling it up six to nine inches. One bird may have as many as a dozen mounds all in secluded spots. Generally speak ing, the birds do not share mounds, although I have often seen different birds perform on "borrowed" mounds. Each bird lives in its own particular area, which extends over a radius of perhaps 200 yards, but there is con siderable overlapping at the margins. During the opera season in lyrebird land the male may sing and display several times in the course of a day. He does not always visit the mound to do this; often he breaks off in the act of feeding to release a burst of song. Such outpourings of melody frequently serve to rouse his emotions, and he will rush to a mound to continue the display and song for perhaps half an hour. The lyrebird's song includes not only his own powerful, rippling call, but a melodious blending of the notes of many other birds.