Nature's Living Tape Recorders May Be Telling Us Secrets

Back in the 1930s there was a bird, an Australian bird, who had this thing for a human lady. The lady's name was Mrs. Wilkinson (I couldn't find her first name) and she lived in Australia. So did the bird. It visited her daily for food. She named it "James."

bird montage i i
Adam Cole/NPR
bird montage
Adam Cole/NPR

When James the bird decided to woo Mrs. Wilkinson, he built a mound in her backyard, stood on top of it, and sang. Mrs. Wilkinson, naturally flattered, invited some human friends to listen.

According to those who were there, on one occasion James sang for 43 minutes. Because James was a superb lyrebird (that's what they're actually called), his songs included sounds he had heard in the woods and suburbs where he lived. Lyrebirds are probably the world's most gifted mimics and according to Wikipedia, James' love song to Mrs. Wilkinson included a kookaburra's laughing song, the calls of cockatoos, wattle-birds, starlings, parrots, an automobile horn, a rock-crushing machine and a jackhammer.

These birds are amazing. If you've never heard a lyrebird do a perfect imitation of a chainsaw, let me introduce you to Chook, a superb lyrebird now resident at the Adelaide Zoo.

Chook lived in a cage next to a panda exhibit while it was under construction so presumably that's how he learned to do perfect renditions of hammers, power drills, and car alarms. Many birds can mimic sounds but lyrebirds are the masters. They are nature's living tape recorders, and sometimes their songs can be troubling.

For example, when the BBC's David Attenborough ran into a lyrebird deep in the Australian woods, the bird not only sang the songs of 20 other forest birds, it also did a perfect imitation of foresters and their chainsaws, who apparently were getting closer. That same bird made the sound of a car alarm.

The lyrebird remembers.
Adam Cole/NPR

These birds were, in effect, recording the sounds of their own habitat destruction. And they were doing this, ironically, inside their mating songs.

Are Lyrebirds Accidental Historians?

The birds, of course, don't "remember" where they picked up these sounds. For them it is just a noise. But scientists do wonder how old are these sounds? Lyrebirds can live 40 to 50 years.

In 1969, Neville Fenton, an Australian park ranger, recorded a lyrebird singing a song that sounded very much like a flute, a flute being played by a human. After much sleuthing, Mr. Fenton discovered that 30 years earlier, a farmer/flute player had lived near the park and played tunes to his pet lyrebird. That lyrebird downloaded the songs, then was allowed to live wild in the park.

Phrases from those flute songs apparently became part of the local lyrebird songbook. A scholar named Norman Robinson figured out that the songs wild lyrebirds were singing in 1969 were modified versions of two popular tunes from the 1930s, "The Keel Row" and "Mosquito's Dance."

Listening to a lyrebird sing may be like listening to very old tapes, writes blogger Alexander Trevi in his fascinating blog Pruned. When you go to the zoo and hear a lyrebird making buzz sounds like a saw, are you listening to something that happened yesterday, or is the bird telling you something more disturbing?

It is...interesting to imagine that a similar soundtrack might have been playing in their home forests before being rescued and brought to their present cages. What visitors are listening to then, are the narratives of their displacement, from their own voices. Their birdsongs are a kind of strange audio tour though environmental degradation and ecological extinction.

Well, maybe. I don't know how Mrs. Wilkinson felt during her serenade, but when I hear Chook, the Adelaide Zoo bird, doing a perfect human whistle on YouTube, so uncannily real it feels like there's a guy walking right behind him off camera, I know I'm hearing a bird rendering of a very specific person who once absolutely whistled that very tune. Who was he? Or she? I don't know. The bird doesn't know, but it's fantastic to hear.

Lady and the lyrebird
Adam Cole/NPR

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