Superb lyrebird

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Superb lyrebird
Superb lyrbird in scrub.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Menuridae
Genus: Menura
M. novaehollandiae
Binomial name
Menura novaehollandiae
Latham, 1801

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 noted for its elaborate tail and excellent mimicry. The species is endemic to the south east of the country, and has been introduced to Tasmania. According to David Attenborough the species displays the most sophisticated voice skills within the animal kingdom.[2]

The superb lyrebird is featured on the reverse side of the Australian 10 cent coin.


Superb lyrebird in courtship display

An Australian endemic, the superb lyrebird can be found in the forests of south-eastern Australia, from southern Victoria to south-eastern Queensland. Its diet consists mainly of small invertebrates found on the forest floor or in rotting logs. In the 1930s a small number were introduced to Tasmania amongst ill-founded fears it was in danger of becoming extinct. The Tasmanian population is currently thriving. Now widespread and common throughout its large range, the superb lyrebird is evaluated as being of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


The superb lyrebird is a pheasant-sized Australian songbird, with males measuring approximately 100 cm (39 in) long and females measuring 76 to 80 cm (30–31 in). Males weigh around 1.1 kg (2.4 lb), and females 890 g (1.96 lb). Among all extant songbirds only the common and thick-billed ravens regularly outweigh it and only the much more slender black sicklebill can rival its length. The plumage is brownish grey on upper body with a red-brown wash on the coverts and wings. The underparts are greyish-brown below. The wings are round and short, with a wingspan of 68 to 76 cm (27–30 in), and they are only capable of weak flight. The legs and feet are long and strong, and capable of running quickly on the ground and digging for food.[3] The ornate tail of the male is 55 to 70 cm (22–28 in) long, and has sixteen feathers, with the two outermost together forming the shape of a lyre. Next within are two guard plumes and twelve long, lace-like feathers, known as filamentaries. Seven years are required for the tail to fully develop. During courtship displays, the male inverts his tail over his head, fanning his feathers to form a silvery white canopy. Young males and females have brown tail feathers which are camouflaged against the forest floor.


Superb lyrebirds are ground-living 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. These groups may in turn travel for some time with territorial adults when they cross their territory.[3]


Superb lyrebird in courtship display — as seen from the back

Superb lyrebirds breed in the depth of winter. Adult males start singing half an hour before sunrise from roosts high above the forest floor. Superb lyrebirds sing less often at other times of year but a stroll through their habitat on a rainy or misty day will sometimes find them active.

Superb lyrebirds have a promiscuous mating system. During the breeding season adult females and males defend separate territories and only females care for young. A female may visit several males before she mates [4] but it is not known if she mates more than once. The female lays a single egg and builds a domed nest often camouflaging it with ferns or moss.[5] The chick spends about nine months with the female before becoming independent.


Superb lyrebird sings in a suburban Sydney backyard, mimicking several Australian native bird calls. (3:30)

The superb lyrebird has an extraordinary ability to accurately mimic a huge variety of sounds. Both male and female lyrebirds sing but males are louder and sing more often.

In David Attenborough's Life of Birds (ep. 6), the lyrebird is described as able to imitate twenty bird species' calls, and a male is shown mimicking a car alarm, chainsaw and various camera shutters. However, two of Attenborough's three lyrebirds were captive birds.[6]

A recording of a superb lyrebird mimicking sounds of an electronic shooting game, workmen and chainsaws was added to the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia registry in 2013.[7] The vocalizations of some superb lyrebirds in the New England area of New South Wales possess a flute-like timbre.[8]


Superb lyrebird are ecosystem engineers that are important for the overall health of the eucalyptus forests they live in. Their foraging behaviour changes the structure of the forest floor, speeding up the decay of forest litter and reducing the amount of fuel for forest fires.[9]


The superb is one of the two lyrebirds in the family Menuridae, the other being the much rarer Albert's lyrebird.

The scientific name has been previously given as Menura superba. The bird was first illustrated and described scientifically as such by Major-General Thomas Davies on 4 November 1800 to the Linnean Society of London.[10][11] His work shows the tail feathers correctly displayed.

Lyrebirds are ancient Australian animals. The Australian Museum has fossils of lyrebirds dating back to about 15 million years ago.[12] The prehistoric Menura tyawanoides has been described from early Miocene fossils found at the famous Riversleigh site.

Museum specimens[edit]

John Gould's painting of a male and female pair of superb lyrebirds, painted from specimens at the British Museum, has the tail feathers of the male incorrectly displayed.[citation needed]

A specimen of a male superb lyrebird, at the American Museum of Natural History, also has the tail feathers displayed incorrectly.[citation needed]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Menura novaehollandiae". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  2. ^ BBC Earth (2009-05-18), Attenborough: the amazing Lyre Bird sings like a chainsaw! Now in high quality | BBC Earth, retrieved 2018-05-21
  3. ^ a b Lill, Alan (2004), "Family Menuridae (Lyrebirds)", in del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Christie, David, Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9, Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails, Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, pp. 484–495, ISBN 84-87334-69-5
  4. ^ Lill, A. 1979. Assessment of male parental investment and pair bonding in the polygamous superb lyrebird, Auk, (vol. 96, pg 489-498).
  5. ^ Higgins, P. J., Peter, J. M. & Steele, W. K. 1990a. Superb lyrebird. In: Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic birds (Ed. by Marchant, S. & Higgins, P. J.), pg 142-173. Melbourne Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ Taylor, Hollis (3 February 2014). "Lyrebirds mimicking chainsaws: fact or lie?". The Conversation. Retrieved 2017-06-26.
  7. ^ National Film and Sound Archive: Sounds of Australia.
  8. ^ Powys, Vicki; Taylor, Hollis; Probets, Carol (2013). "A Little Flute Music: Mimicry, Memory, and Narrativity". Environmental Humanities. 3 (1): 43–70. doi:10.1215/22011919-3611230. ISSN 2201-1919.
  9. ^ Nugent, Daniel T.; Leonard, Steven W. J.; Clarke, Michael F. (2014). "Interactions between the superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) and fire in south-eastern Australia". Wildlife Research. 41 (3): 203–211. doi:10.1071/wr14052.
  10. ^ Davies, Thomas (4 November 1800). "Description of Menura superba, a Bird of New South Wales". Transactions of the Linnean Society. 6. London (published 1802). pp. 207–10.
  11. ^ Wikisource Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Lyre-Bird". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  12. ^ Boles, Walter (2011). "Lyrebird: Overview". Pulse of the Planet. Retrieved 3 October 2011.

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