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Here we find ourselves in one of the most spectacular ecosystems on our planet: the rainforests of Australia. The area we are in stretches across a mountain range in the southeast of the continent. In places the dense, lush forests give way to moorland, open bush or swampy areas teeming with life. Wonderful species, some of them very old, live in these places, such as the Wollemi pine, the last representative of a family of trees that grew into the sky several million years ago. We move into a fantastical environment that seems to come straight from the overflowing imagination of a storyteller. And for good reason: Here we are embarking on a real search. Because the animal we hope to observe today has all the characteristics of a magical and… sonorous creature.
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A magical bird that is difficult to observe
We're looking for the lyre bird. The lyrebird, also known as the magnificent lyrebird, is secretive and is not easy to approach. His magical song has rung out in the dense Australian forest for centuries, but no one could have imagined how his talents would captivate the entire world… This large land bird is endemic to Australia, meaning it is only found here. Like the blackbird or the robin in our landscape, it belongs to the order of passerines. His family, the Ménures, is made up of two species: the Superménure, which interests us today, and the Ménure Albert, just as talented but even more discreet than his cousin. The lyrebird gets its name from its hind feathers, the shape of which would be reminiscent of… a lyre, a stringed instrument played since at least Greco-Roman antiquity. But honestly, it's his musical abilities that make this name fit him like a glove…
The lyrebird has a beautiful brown and gray color. Its small head, equipped with large, round, black eyes, ends in a pointed beak. It moves carefully on its two long legs to the middle of the clearing in front of us. It's a man. We know this thanks to the majestic train he carries. It consists of several white feathers and two large main feathers with white, silver, red and black spots, ending in a kind of curl. It may not look quite like a lyre, but it's no less magnificent! The lyrebird is a land bird that can grow up to one meter long and is able to fly short distances to escape danger. Look, this one digs the ground with its sharp claws in search of worms or insects to prepare its dinner. By stirring up the earth in this way, it plays a major ecological role: the lyrebird contributes to good aeration of the soil.
Imitations to seduce
The song of the lyrebird is one of the most complex in the world. And for a very simple reason: he is an excellent imitator! He harvests the sounds of the forest, like others harvest mushrooms or berries. For example, our dear imitator took his song from the kookaburra, a mythical bird in the culture of Australia's aborigines. And he reproduces it perfectly… So he is able to imitate many other species of birds to perfect his impressive concert. But what use is it to him to be an imitator of genius? The answer is right before our eyes. This male has folded back his hind feathers, they now cover his body and head. And suddenly he starts moving strangely. In fact, he's dancing in the middle of the clearing! We have the privilege of witnessing a wedding ceremony: with the forest as a witness and before our astonished eyes, the male sings and dances, revealing his feathers. He's trying to impress his future partner! Yes, our dear imitator is a strange seducer…
And in order for the females to enjoy the show, the lyrebird must show extraordinary ingenuity, because the only way to get their attention is by singing! This example, like others before it, imitates mechanical noises such as those produced by cameras! The lyrebird, exposed to human sounds, memorized them and added them to its repertoire. Some were filmed imitating car alarms or the cries of human babies. Confusing, isn't it? These sounds of our daily life testify to the impact of human activities on the lyrebird's habitat. Effect that goes even further. The lyrebird was not previously considered an endangered species, but recent wildfires in Australia have largely destroyed its habitat, worrying scientists and conservation groups.
For a long time, the outstanding male species has attracted all the attention of researchers, but the females sing too! Just like their counterparts, they imitate other animals and also sing the melodic songs of their species perfectly. Part of the lyrebird's talent is explained by its syrinx, the organ present in birds and comparable to our larynx, thanks to which we produce our voice. It is this organ that is equipped with complex musculature that allows it to emit precise sounds and captivating songs. Since its discovery, scientists have continued to be interested in the lyrebird's virtuoso imitation skills. And you will see that this extraordinary bird still has a few surprises in store for us.
An amazing story about friendship…or almost!
One of the first anecdotes we heard about the lyrebird appeared in the Australian newspaper The Age in 1932 under the delightful title “The Miracle of Dandenong,” a reference to the mountain range of the same name. In this article, Ambrose Pratt, a journalist, describes the fascinating story of the friendship between an old nature-loving lady, Mrs. Wilkinson, and… a lyre bird.
Mrs Wilkinson was a gardener and maintained a magnificent garden in her mountain chalet. She grew all kinds of flowers there and spent many hours a day with her hands in the soil looking at them, tending to them and encouraging them to grow. One day a little lyrebird visited him. Mrs. Wilkinson, kneeling among her flowerbeds, raised her head to observe the strange visitor. But he hardly lingered and left secretly. The lyrebird is not easy to reach and Mrs Wilkinson knew this well. She thought it had been a wonderful encounter and that she would never see this curious visitor again. But the next day, as Mrs Wilkinson went about her daily business in her garden, the lyrebird returned. And the next day and the next. She offered him small seeds and insects to eat, but he stubbornly refused. But the most amazing thing was yet to come. Because one day James (that's what she called him) started singing and dancing.
On each visit, James presented Ms. Wilkinson with an enchanting display of singing, imitations, and daring movements. Ms. Wilkinson even built a small wooden stage for him not far from her porch and invited spectators to admire the incredible performance. James always managed to captivate the audience. Until the day Ambrose Pratt, journalist for The Age, witnessed this strange spectacle. He was so surprised that he wrote an article to promote this story of friendship throughout Australia. His article concludes: “I have seen James several times. Each time he added new pieces to his wondrous performance. […] One day, when Mrs. Wilkinson was bedridden with illness, he built a small hill outside her bedroom window and sang to her every day until she recovered. » This is a story worthy of the most beautiful fairy tales! So the most likely explanation is that James must have confused Mrs. Wilkinson with another woman. He would therefore have allowed her to enjoy his courtship for months. At that time, the lyrebird was little known, but thanks to scientists we learned a lot about it. And his talents aren't just limited to the world of entertainment…
Imitations are so complex that they fool birds and fascinate scientists
The ornithologist Anastasia Dalziell studies the lyrebird in particular by recording the sounds it emits in its natural environment. And one day she realized that the bird's melodious songs and flamboyant imitations sometimes give way to something else. The lyrebird makes a sound that reminds the researcher of something she has already heard on her forays into the forest: the sounds of groups of birds when danger is approaching.
Because yes, when a predator approaches, birds of different species begin to sound the alarm and scream together to scare off the enemy. The sound emitted therefore combines the cries of several species of birds, it is very complex! By studying recordings of the lyrebird, Anastasia and her team realized that it is capable of recreating this sound on its own! In fact, it creates a very elaborate acoustic illusion to give the impression that a group of birds is warning of danger. To do this, he superimposes the calls of different birds and changes the intensity of these calls to give the impression that they come from different positions and therefore come from different individuals. The precision even goes so far that it imitates the flapping of birds' wings!
The result is astonishing to the human ear. But by making birds listen to this illusion, Anastasia realized that they too were being deceived by the illusion: they ran to join the group simulated by the lyrebird, as they would in the event of real danger! The lyrebird is therefore not just a majestic bird worthy of a fairy tale. An excellent imitator and a major player in environmental conservation, he is able to create sound illusions of such precision that they fool the birds themselves! Incredible, isn't it?