Jonathan Jones: The Superb Lyrebird

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) is named for its extraordinary ability to mimic sounds. From the calls of other birds to motorbikes and chainsaws, they create songs that reflect their local environment. Songs are vitally important to the lyrebird, so much so that they start singing while still in the egg.

Many Aboriginal stories speak of the lyrebird as being gifted this talent to talk to all other creatures. Early fossils date the lyrebird ancestors at 15 million years ago. This research defines Australian songbirds as the oldest in the world, meaning that the world’s songbirds originated from here.

Recent research has shown that lyrebirds help in the mitigation of bushfires. It’s been estimated that in the pursuit of food this small ground-dwelling bird, with its long legs and big feet, turns over 200 tonnes of earth per hectare, per year, effectively composting the forest floor’s leaf litter, which in turn reduces the fire-load and creates fire-breaks.


Each week Jonathan Jones shares stories of native Australian birds, touching on their importance, the issues they face and what we can learn from them. Jones' upcoming artwork for the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art requires thousands of native Australian bird feathers, which he needs your help to find.

Image: The Superb Lyrebird. Photo via BirdLife Australia