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Lyrebirds: Menuridae

LYREBIRDS: Menuridae

ALBERT'S LYREBIRD (Menura alberti): SPECIES ACCOUNT

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

The male superb lyrebird is one of the world's more spectacular examples of birdlife, with his majestic tail of sixteen fanned, silver feathers that resembles the ancient Greek instrument called a lyre. The bird is dark brown on the top of its body, light brown below, and rufous (reddish) on its throat. The female of the species is smaller and has similar coloring, with a broadly webbed, reddish tail.

The male Albert's lyrebird is less colorful and smaller than the superb species. It possesses the same dramatic fanned tail, but without the outer lyre-shaped feathers. Both sexes are a rich chestnut color.

Adult lyrebirds range from 33 to 38.5 inches (84 to 98 centimeters)—about the size of a rooster—making them one of the biggest passerines (PASS-ur-eenz), perching birds. Male and female lyrebirds have small heads, long legs, tails, and necks, and large feet with powerful claws. Because of their weak, short wings, they seldom fly. Lyrebirds have short, sharp, slightly down-turned bills that they use for picking prey out of leaf litter.

Although they have their own species-specific songs, lyrebirds are natural mimics, much like the American mockingbird. They can copy almost any clear, loud sound, such as chainsaws, horns, guns, crying babies, shouts, trains, alarms, and many bird and animal sounds. The superb lyrebird is generally recognized as the more proficient singer of the two species. Both transmit their songs from generation to generation. Males of both species sing most in the Australian winter months of June and July.

GEOGRAPHIC RANGE

Both Albert's and the superb lyrebird are native to Australia, where they occur from southern Queensland and northern New South Wales along the Great Dividing Range and south to southwestern Victoria.


HABITAT

Both species of lyrebird live only in Australia's rainforests and mixed temperate forests, although the Albert's specializes in mountainous areas and the superb occupies a broader range of elevations (from foothill to sea-level). Lyrebirds require lush understory vegetation both to feed and to hide from predators, animals that hunt them for food.


DIET

Lyrebirds eat a carnivorous, meat eating, diet of insects and other invertebrates, animals without a backbone.


BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION

The males of both species sing a lot and use their tails to perform an elaborate courtship display for any approaching females, arching their fanned tails over their backs to form a canopy. The males occupy and defend trampled mounds of vegetation, mating with any female who allows them. Females build a messy, dome-shaped nest of sticks near or on a moist patch of ground in which they lay a single, purplish gray, spotted egg. They incubate (keep warm by sitting on) the egg for six weeks without assistance from a male, and the nestling remains in the nest for six to ten weeks.


LYREBIRDS AND PEOPLE

While a source of amusement due to its close mimicry of human-generated sounds, the lyrebird is often regarded as an annoyance as well. Its habit of shuffling through leaf litter for food can be destructive when it occurs in gardens and compost heaps.

A LONG WAIT FOR BEAUTY

Unlike most other bird species, which reach full sexual maturity in a matter of months, young male superb lyrebirds do not grow their fancy, elaborate tails until they reach three or four years of age, and only when they are six do they acquire the extra filamentary feathers that make their appearance so dramatic. Until then, they cluster together and are known as "plain-tails."

CONSERVATION STATUS

Although once nearly extinct due to habitat destruction and overhunting for its exotic tail feathers, the superb lyrebird is now regarded as common in its native environment. The Albert's lyrebird's Vulnerable status, facing a high risk of extinction, is somewhat more precarious due to its more restricted habitat, but careful protection measures have helped to stabilize its population sizes. Both species remain vulnerable to predation by feral cats and foxes, while increasing human incursion into their environment poses a strong threat.

ALBERT'S LYREBIRD (Menura alberti): SPECIES ACCOUNT

Physical characteristics: The male Albert's lyrebird (also known as Prince Albert's lyrebird) is not as dramatic looking as the superb lyrebird, since its tail lacks the outer lyre-shaped tail feathers of its cousin. The Albert's species is slightly smaller than the superb as well, with adult females measuring 33 inches (84 centimeters) and adult males measuring 35.5 inches (90 centimeters). Both sexes have small heads, long tails, and long, powerful legs and claws. They are virtually flightless, although the birds use their weak, undeveloped wings to help them hop up and down from low branches and other perches, much like a chicken does.

Albert's lyrebirds are deep chestnut on their upper bodies, with reddish buff throats. The males' tails are glossy black and silver-gray underneath. Both sexes are legendary for their ability to copy almost any sound, natural or mechanical. The male lyrebird's species-specific call is a piercing "craw-cree-craw-craw-wheat," and when alarmed both sexes emit a shrieking "whisk-whisk" cry.


Geographic range: Occupying a smaller range than the superb lyrebird, the Albert's lyrebird is limited to mountainous rainforests between the Mistake Range in southeast Queensland to the Nightcap Range in northeast New South Wales. In all, the bird's territory totals only 580 square miles (1,500 square kilometers), which supports an estimated 3,500 individuals. The highest population densities of Albert's lyrebird have been found at Whian Whian State Forest in the Nightcap Range, but other significant populations exist in the Richmond, Tweed, and McPherson Ranges.


Habitat: Found only in Australian rainforests at about 1,000 feet (300 meters) and above, Albert's lyrebird requires a dense understory that provides deep leaf litter for foraging. The Antarctic poplar is usually present in the lyrebird's environment as well. They bathe daily in still pools or slow-running streams.


Diet: Lyrebirds rely on their strong claws and legs to scratch through leaf litter, fallen branches, and even rocks, uncovering spiders, worms, ants, frogs, lizards, grubs, and snails.


Behavior and reproduction: In optimal conditions, Albert's lyrebirds prefer widely spaced territories, with about five pairs of birds per 0.4 square miles (1 square kilometer). They are sedentary birds, rarely leaving their own territory. Both sexes are shy and difficult to spot, and when threatened will dart and dodge quickly through the underbrush, giving out piercing calls of alarm. Because of their underdeveloped wings, the birds can run much faster than they can fly. Lyrebirds roost in the low branches of trees at night.

During the mating season from May to August, males perform an elaborate and graceful dance atop a low platform of trampled vegetation or in an area of scratched earth. Each male may have as many as ten or fifteen of these display arenas, which he visits in turn. Their vocalizations during this time are complex and penetrating, consisting of a cycle of imitations of various natural and human-made sounds. Known as the "albertcycle," the song is often interspersed with territorial songs, after which the male bird will pause briefly to listen for an answering challenge. Following the pause, he will usually resume his cycle where he left off or he may start all over.

Once the male attracts a female bird, he will fan his tail over his back and prance back and forth over his platform in a rhythmic, dignified manner. The male will mate with as many females as he can entice to his arena.

After mating, the female builds a loosely constructed dome of sticks up several feet (about one meter) off the ground, lining and insulating it with her own feathers, moss, and ferns. She lays one egg in a moist indentation in the center of the structure, incubating it alone and then tending to the nestling without assistance for up to nine months. The young develop slowly, remaining covered with down even at four months old.


Albert's lyrebirds and people: Lyrebirds' extraordinary ability to mimic sounds has amused people for as long as the species have coexisted. One local story from the nineteenth century described how a lyrebird repeatedly caused the evacuation of a logging operation with its imitation of a fire siren until the loggers discovered the culprit. However, other encounters have not been so friendly. Many farmers and gardeners are annoyed by the lyrebirds' habit of shuffling through mulch and leaves, and some conservationists have even suggested that the birds are endangering other ground-dwelling animals and some types of vegetation with their large-scale digging. The bird's shy and elusive nature has thwarted many attempts to study it.


Conservation status: The World Conservation Union (IUCN) categorized Albert's lyrebird as a Vulnerable species in 2003. Part of the reason for the classification is because of the bird's apparent inability to cross over areas of unsuitable habitat to colonize other appropriate environments. Other threats include wild cats, human infringement on rainforest areas, and naturally occurring wildfires that periodically sweep through their environment. ∎


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Books:

Ford, H. A., and D. C. Paton, eds. The Dynamic Partnership: Birds and Plants in Southern Australia. South Australia: D. J. Woolman, 1986.

Higgins, P. J., et al., eds. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 5, Tyrant-Flycatchers to Chats. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Rutgers, Abram. Birds of Australia. London: Methuen & Co., 1967.

Schodde, R., and I. J. Mason. The Directory of Australian Birds—Passerines. Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO Publishing, 1999.

Smith, L. H. The Life of the Lyrebird. Richmond, Australia: William Heinemann Australia, 1988.


Periodicals:

Curtis, H. S. "The Albert Lyrebird in Display." Emu 72 (1972): 81–84.

Sibley, C. G. "The Relationship of the Lyrebirds." Emu 74 (1974): 65–79.


Web sites:

"Albert's Lyrebird." ARKive: Images of Life on Earth. http://www.arkive.org/species/GES/birds/Menura_alberti/more_info.html (accessed on April 28, 2004).

"Albert's Lyrebird." Birdlife.net. http://www.birdlife.net (accessed on April 28, 2004).

"Lyrebird." Concise Britannica Online. http://concise.britannica.com (accessed on April 28, 2004).

"Lyrebirds." Cornell University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/winkler/botw/menuridae.html (accessed on April 28, 2004).

"Lyrebirds." National Parks and Wildlife Service Australia. http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/npws.nsf/Content/Lyrebirds (accessed on April 28, 2004).

"Lyrebird." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyrebird (accessed on April 28, 2004).

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