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What is a Lyre Bird?

Lyre birds will eat earthworms.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2014
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The lyre bird is a unique Australian bird which is somewhat famous for its distinctive imitative calls. The term “lyre bird” actually refers to two different avians, the superb lyrebird and the Albert's lyrebird. The extremely shy birds are rarely seen in their natural habitat, although they appear abundantly in logos for Australian businesses and on the Australian 10 cent coin.

The superb lyrebird is found in the forested regions of Victoria and South Wales, where it appears to have been living for around 15 million years, according to fossil evidence. The Albert's lyrebird, a more rare species, is found in a small rainforest region of Queensland. The bird was named for Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband. Both birds favor dense forests, and they can be found by following their distinctive songs. In some cases, the only traces of lyre birds may be their sounds and tracks, since the shy birds usually hide from humans.

At first glance, the appearance of a lyre bird is not terribly impressive. Both males and females are around the size of a pheasant, with brown and red plumage. The male, however, has an astounding tail which he can erect in a courtship display. When the tail is fully unfurled, it covers the male's back, almost like a fan. The distinctive shape of the tail does indeed strongly resemble a lyre, with two large border feathers and a network of smaller feathers which look like strings.

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The birds are rather ungainly fliers, typically choosing to run from predators or threats. Lyre birds scratch in the leaf litter on the ground in search of grubs, bugs, earthworms, and seeds to eat, and the females nest close to the ground, laying a single egg. They are also single parents; the male lyre bird typically has several mates, and leaves them to their own devices when it comes to raising young.

The courtship display of the male lyre bird is quite distinctive and by all accounts rather amazing. First, the male birds clear a section of forest floor, stamping out a small mound to act as a stage. Then, the males fan out their tails and start singing. The birds are amazing imitators, capable of perfectly mimicking the calls of a number of bird species. They can also reproduce human-made sounds such as car alarms, flutes, camera shutters, and chain saws, weaving the sounds into a performance which can last an hour or more.

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