Superb lyrebird

Superb lyrebird

Superb lyrebird

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Menura novaehollandiae

The superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae ) is an Australian songbird, one of two species from the family Menuridae. It is one of the world's largest songbirds, and is renowned for its elaborate tail and courtship displays, and its excellent mimicry. The species is endemic to Australia and is found in forest in the southeast of the country. According to David Attenborough, the superb lyrebird displays the most sophisticated voice skills within the animal kingdom—"the most elaborate, the most complex, and the most beautiful".

In Culture

An instantly recognisable bird, the superb lyrebird has been featured as an emblem many times. Notable examples of this include a male superb lyrebird being featured on the reverse side of the Australian 10-cent coin, and as the emblem of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.


The superb lyrebird is a large, pheasant-sized terrestrial passerine, ranging in length from 860 mm (34 in) for the female to 1 m (39 in) for the male. Females weigh around 0.9 kg (2.0 lb), and males weigh around 1.1 kg (2.4 lb). The plumage colour is mainly dark brown on the upper body, with greyish-brown underparts and red-tinged flight feathers. The wings are short and round, and are only capable of weak flight, being mainly used for balance or for gliding from trees to the ground. The legs are powerful, capable of running quickly, and the feet are strong enough to move branches up to 10 cm in diameter.

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Lyrebirds are renowned for their ornate tails. Adult males have tails up to 70 cm (28 in) long, consisting of sixteen feathers. The outer two feathers, the lyrates, are broad S-shaped feathers, originally named for their resemblance to the shape of a lyre, and have brown and buff coloured patterning. Between the lyrates are twelve filamentaries, feathers of flexible silvery barbs. In the centre of the tail are two silvery median feathers. The tail of the female is less ornate, with shorter lyrates and plain, broad feathers in place of the filamentaries. In both sexes, juveniles have no ornamental tail feathers. The tail plumage develops into that of the mature bird through a series of annual moults, with feathers undergoing change in structure and patterning. The male superb lyrebird reaches maturity in 7–9 years, and the female in 6–7 years.

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Biogeographical realms

Lyrebirds are ancient Australian animals. The Australian Museum contains fossils of lyrebirds dating back to about 15 million years ago. The prehistoric Menura tyawanoides has been described from early Miocene fossils found at the famous Riversleigh site. The superb lyrebird is found in the forests of southeastern Australia, ranging from southern Victoria to southeastern Queensland.

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The bird was introduced to southern Tasmania in 1934–54, amid ill-founded fears the species was becoming threatened with extinction in its mainland populations. The Tasmania population is thriving and even growing. Across the rest of its large range, the lyrebird is common, and is evaluated as being of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

This range of the superb lyrebird includes a variety of biomes, including subtropical and temperate rainforest, and wet and dry sclerophyll forest. The preferred habitat of the bird is in wet forest and rainforest, where there is an open ground layer of moist leaf litter shaded by vegetation. In favourable seasons, the lyrebird range is often extended into drier areas further from water sources.

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Habits and Lifestyle

Superb lyrebirds are ground-dwelling birds that typically live solitary lives. Adults usually live singly in territories, but young birds without territories may associate in small groups which can be single or mixed-sex. Lyrebirds are not strong fliers and are not highly mobile, often remaining within the same area for their entire lifespans. Superb lyrebird territories are generally small, and there are known behavioural differences between different populations.

Seasonal behavior
Bird's call

Diet and Nutrition

The diet of the superb lyrebird consists primarily of invertebrates such as earthworms and insects found on the forest floor. There is also evidence that the birds are mycophagists, meaning that they eat fungi.

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Superb lyrebirds forage by scratching vigorously in the upper soil layers, disturbing the topsoil and leaf litter. The birds are most likely to forage in damp rainforest vegetation relative to drier areas, and in areas where the bottom vegetation strata is open and low in complexity, allowing good access to food sources in the leaf litter.

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Mating Habits

Superb lyrebirds exhibit polygyny, with a single male mating with several females. A male's territory can overlap with up to six female territories. Within his territory, the male will construct several circular mounds of bare dirt on the forest floor, for the purpose of conducting courtship displays. These mounds are defended vigorously from other males. There is strong sexual selection in lyrebirds, with females visiting the territories of several different males and choosing the most desirable males with which to copulate. When a male encounters a female lyrebird, he performs an elaborate courtship display on the nearest mound. This display incorporates both song and dance elements. The male fans out his tail horizontally to cover his entire body and head. The tail feathers are vibrated, and the lyrebird beats his wings against his body and struts around the mound. He also sings loudly, incorporating his own vocalisations with mimicry of other bird calls. After mating, the male performs an ornate postcopulatory display shaking his tail while producing a soft clicking sound. Throughout, he faces the female and often will walk backwards. A study has found evidence that the lyrebirds’ ‘dance choreography’ is highly coordinated to different types of song repertoire. Coordination of movement with acoustic signals is a trait previously thought to be unique to humans, and indicates high cognitive ability.

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Females are the sole providers of parental care. They build large domed nests out of sticks on raised earth platforms. Nests are most likely to be located in wetter areas with deep leaf litter and high understory vegetation complexity, reflecting the requirements of food availability and protection from predators.

The female breeds once per year in winter, usually laying a single egg. Eggs are laid in a deep bed of lyrebird feathers within the nest, and are then incubated by the female for up to 7 weeks. Post-fledging parental care lasts several months, with the female exerting significant energy in feeding and brooding the nestling.

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Population threats

Superb lyrebirds are vulnerable to native predatory birds such as the collared sparrowhawk, gray goshawk, and currawongs. Nests are particularly vulnerable to predation, but adults are also vulnerable due to their loud calls. It has been observed that males suffer higher degrees of mortality, suggesting that their courtship displays render them highly vulnerable. Methods utilised by superb lyrebirds to reduce predation risk include selection of protected areas for nest sites, mimicking calls of other predatory birds, and adopting solitary and timid behaviours.

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As the superb lyrebird is a poor flyer, when alarmed it will tend to run away, sometimes incorporating short gliding flights to lower perches or downhill.

Human factors also pose threats to superb lyrebirds. Because they are ground-dwelling, superb lyrebirds are particularly threatened by vehicle collisions. The presence of roads and infrastructure also pose edge effects, for example disturbance from domestic animals and predation by introduced species such as the red fox, which is often associated with urban areas.

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1. Superb lyrebird Wikipedia article -
2. Superb lyrebird on The IUCN Red List site -
3. Xeno-canto bird call -

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