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Sunday, January 8, 2012

32) Superb Lyrebird

Menura novaehollandiae

I’ve written many times before on this blog about my parents’ holiday house on the Brogo River, near Bega in southern New South Wales.  It was a place I visited frequently when I was a child; less often as I grew older; now, almost never.  It was the place where I truly started noticing animals – and, as an inevitable extension of that but by accident rather than design, it was the place where I started noticing the world in general.  It started with birds: with an Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris), specifically, about which I will surely write before too long.  I compiled a list of all the bird species I saw on the property, a project which continued for as long as I was a regular visitor there and which if it suspended now, is suspended only because I so rarely visit the property these days.

Until last week, the last time I’d been there was at Easter in 2010.  It took a few moments for my family and me to recall that that had been the last time, so unusual is it for me to make the trip these days.  However, last week, when I was visiting my family in Canberra for Christmas, I unexpectedly found myself on the property again: my parents decided to go there, to tend to the garden more than anything else, for two nights between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.  Initially I was resistant to go with them, because I’ve always been resistant to uprooting myself from a settled position and because even though there are so many examples of me enjoying myself once I’ve done so there are some childish habits and mindsets which seemingly can’t be outgrown; but my father, in particular, was adamant that we go, and so arrangements were made, schedules were negotiated, and we went.

I love Melbourne, and the vibrancy of living in a large city, but going to the bush is always a salve.  The minty, dusty tang of a eucalypt forest at night is an aroma that seems to stretch out the spine and seep into one’s joints: a sensory massage made of scent and memory.  For a visitor to the bush the days slow down: with no electricity on my parents’ property save what’s drawn from the sky through solar panels, the house is quiet and the air is clear with the sounds and smells of bush life: a meal being prepared; the pages of a book being turned; the snarl of a chainsaw as my father, feeling a sense of duty to the property which I, not owning it, cannot share, walks up the road to the gate and clears sapling acacias from the verge before they grow large enough to make the road impassable.  The stretch of forest at the top of the road, near the gate, is particularly marked by acacias.  Their roots play host to rhizomatous bacteria which introduce nitrogen into the soil; in time the acacias die, but not before having changed the composition of the soil in which they grow, making it more nutrient-rich and thus allowing the denser eucalypt forest to expand its borders.  In such ways does a forest shift and change over decades.

There are three types of forest on my parents’ property: there’s the acacia forest, sparse and full of light; there’s the wet sclerophyll eucalypt forest, which covers the great majority of the property and which is thick with grass and undergrowth and treacherous with loosely buried granite rocks; and lastly there’s the rainforest, which grows in one gully on the property and which is composed largely of Pittosporums and of a particular species of fig which always and without exception makes its foundations upon those same granite rocks.  The rainforest is the densest of the forests and, accordingly, it plays host to the shyest animals.

One such animal is the Superb Lyrebird.  In appearance something like a leggy, dowdy, wallflower of a peacock, the Superb Lyrebird is famed the world over for its extraordinary talent for mimicry: in order to impress females, the male of the species will scratch a mound of bare earth into a kind of stage, fan his long, fronded tail over his head, and let forth an astonishing torrent of imitated sounds: mostly the songs and calls of other birds, but also mechanical sounds and pitch-perfect imitations of any other sound he may have heard during the course of his life.  So accurate is a male Lyrebird’s mimicry that I once heard one imitating a Lewin’s Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii), only to be answered by a real Lewin’s Honeyeater.  (Lyrebird songs can always be distinguished from the “originals” that they copy because the Lyrebird’s voice is so much louder and more resonant than any other bird’s.)

There are actually two species of Lyrebird: the smaller of the two, the Albert’s Lyrebird (Menura alberti), is restricted in range to a small area of forest on the border between Queensland and New South Wales, about half way up Australia’s east coast.  The Superb Lyrebird is found over a much larger area, inhabiting forest from eastern Victoria up the entire coast of New South Wales to the south of Queensland.  Lyrebirds belong to the passerines, Order Passeriformes, which contains more than half of the world’s bird species – and at a maximum of 90 centimetres long, not including its elaborate tail, the Superb Lyrebird is one of the very largest of the passerines.  Though more accurately called “perching birds”, the passerines are often referred to as “songbirds” – and it’s for its song that the Lyrebird is treasured.  The song is best heard in winter, which is when Lyrebirds breed – but it can be heard to a lesser degree in summer, too, when males practice their songs and mimicry.

That the frequently incoherent squawks and yelps that can be heard emanating from Lyrebirds in summer are practice for a masterpiece to come can be confirmed by anybody who’s ever had the pleasure of hearing an adult male Lyrebird performing his song in its full majesty during the breeding season.  If the adults are astonishing in the perfection of their mimicry, the younger males who can be heard practicing through summer are charming in how off the mark they so frequently are.  This was certainly the case last week, at my parents’ property, when my family and I were treated to one Lyrebird’s frequent attempts to imitate Eastern Whipbirds (Psophodes olivaceus), Laughing Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), and any number of other sounds whose origins, such was the young male’s ineptitude, we could only guess at.

The evident fact is that although the urge and ability of the Lyrebird to mimic other birds is surely innate, the Lyrebird’s song in its final majesty can only be arrived at by hard work.  It’s disconcerting to think of an animal, any animal other than a human, practicing a task: repeating actions over and over again until they take a final, agreeable shape.  It impinges upon our own identity, in a way: it comes dangerously close to destabilising our very consciousness, this realisation that a bird could have an objective, and determination to reach that objective, and awareness of the position of its own achievements, relative to what it wants or needs to achieve.  For surely a Lyrebird which practises and practises and practises a Kookaburra’s call until it has it precisely correct is profoundly aware of its own skill level relative to where it ought to be.  Why else would it keep practicing its song?

It seems that every time a particular form of behaviour is nominated as being definitive of humanity, demonstrative of what “separates us from the animals”, it’s only a matter of time until that supposition is proved to be false.  Tool making?  That went early: Chimpanzees (Pan spp.) strip sticks of leaves and then use them to fish out termites from termite mounds for a meal; examples of tool use among birds are too numerous to list, but include the astonishing example of Striated Herons (Butorides striatus) in Japan selecting and trimming twigs which they then cast into the water, in order to feed on the fish which come to investigate the new object that has fallen into their habitat.  Perhaps the most striking differentiation between human behaviour and the majority of animal behaviour is that we cook and prepare our food before eating it – but, famously, a group of Japanese Macaques (Macaca fuscata) on the island of Koshima created what could be considered a culture of washing – and, later, simply seasoning – sweet potatoes in sea water.  There are countless other examples of behaviour which we regard as innately human, but which can also be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  If there’s anything that differentiates human behaviour from the behaviour of animals, it’s simply the degree of complexity to which we’ve taken these actions and habits.

I wonder, though, why we should even be bothered about differentiating ourselves from other animals.  Are we so insecure about our identity as a species that we should need to proclaim it loudly and repeatedly to ourselves?  Are we so eager to claim first place over all the other animals?  Of course there are many people to whom even the suggestion that humans are just another species of animal is appalling – but when I look at the extraordinary, the beautiful, the breathtaking magnificence and variety of the animal kingdom, I can’t help but wonder why anybody would want to turn their back on such a kinship.

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