Not danceable, but it’s creative

(Note also: I think someone with a bird fetish has a birthday coming up…)


  1. #1 Primate
    January 31, 2010

    I am skeptical about the last sounds it made in immitation of chainsaws and nearby equipment. I think it’s fake. All the rest seemed real to me. I’d like to see another verification of this.

  2. #2 jack.rawlinson
    January 31, 2010

    Primate: lyrebirds are renowned for stunning mimicry. There are some good links from Wikipedia that provide background on this if you want to find a few quick examples. Personally I don’t find the chainsaw impression hard to believe at all because a friend of mine used to have a mynah bird that could also imitate power tools (and a lot else besides) with astonishing accuracy.

  3. #3 Primate
    January 31, 2010

    Wow, everywhere I’ve looked seems to confirm that it actually makes the chainsaw noise. I suppose I believe it, but it still seems fishy to me.

  4. #4 Adam Atlas
    January 31, 2010

    When I saw “not danceable, but it’s creative” and “bird fetish”, I thought it was going to be about this.

  5. #5 Snoof
    January 31, 2010

    Primate: I can confirm that yes, lyrebirds do imitate chainsaws. Also trucks, people chopping wood and dogs barking.

  6. #6 Atheist Chaplain
    January 31, 2010

    Having actually seen and heard lyre birds in the bush I can confirm that they can and do mimic anything and everything including chainsaws. No magic or slight of hand in this video 🙂

  7. #7 Moggie
    January 31, 2010

    See how much better nature footage is without a National Geographic bozo narrating?

  8. #8 "GrrlScientist"
    January 31, 2010

    aw, you are very sweet to mention my birdday, PZ! i really appreciate everything you and mary have done for me to encourage me and to help me along the way, not the least of which was to so kindly accepting me as a member of your family. even though i live in germany, i still think of you as family.

    regarding the video: actually, i have embedded that video on my blog at least once (probably more than once, now that i think about it) and that particular individual lyrebird was filmed at the Melbourne Zoo, not in the wild, as the clip implies. So the fact the bird imitates a chainsaw with such astonishing accuracy is plausible since there was a bit of construction occurring near this bird’s aviary (according to what i was told about the circumstances surrounding the making of this video clip).

    the bird world has several avian families that are astounding mimics: corvids, parrots, and especially the starlings (also known as mynah birds). there also has been some study of songbirds and their mimicking abilities, which varies by family. i’ve not experienced songbird mimics first-hand, so i cannot comment about their abilities from experience.

  9. #9 coughlanbrianm
    January 31, 2010

    … and not a tired sports metaphor in sight. Dave is the very best:-)

  10. #10 maglione.k
    January 31, 2010

    Primate, when Attenborough is involved, you can temper your skepticism a bit.

  11. #11 Brian
    January 31, 2010

    Is it still creative when it’s so imitative?

    Also, I was really hoping someone would actually show up at the end. Seems a shame if he went home alone after a performance like that?

  12. #12 Ring Tailed Lemurian
    January 31, 2010

    @ primate #1

    Whaaaaaat!? You think David Attenborough (the man who should be the President of the UK Republic) would be party to a fake documentary!? Sacrilege! Blasphemer! You have insulted the God of the Lemurs!

    (Now I know how the Xtians feel when someone calls Yahweh a psychopathic bastard).

  13. #13 MadScientist
    January 31, 2010

    They’re certainly impressive mimics (if you can get in sight of one going through its repertoire without spooking it), but I still prefer one of the Asian mynas.

    @Primate: some do make chainsaw and background noises; with a good recording it’s easy to pick that it’s a mimic because it’s actually not very good at getting the background noises (like the crashing trees) quite right and falters a bit with the chainsaw act too. You have to keep in mind that a mimic will only imitate things it has heard, so the bird would have had to have been near a logging camp or else watched a TV show with B-grade horror flicks with a lot of chainsaw scenes.

  14. #14 Cowcakes
    January 31, 2010

    I’ve heard Lyre Birds imitate everything from other wildlife to the squeal of disk brakes and car horns & engines. As an aside my family used ot have a Sulpher Crested Cockatoo that used to bark at visitors. Funniest thing youve ever seen watching people looking in the direction of the bird while it was barking, as the dog was silently trotting up behind them.

  15. #15 maxamillion
    January 31, 2010

    so the bird would have had to have been near a logging camp or else watched a TV show with B-grade horror flicks with a lot of chainsaw scenes.

    You mean like a National Geographic documentary?

  16. #16 iasasai
    January 31, 2010

    Whenever I hear David Attenborough talk, the person I envision speaking is Colin Baker… Well, it could be worse.
    Birds are WEIRD critters! We used to have a parakeet (budgie) once upon a time that was actually pretty good at speaking. Even AFTER having fallen into my dad’s beer stein. His name was Goofus.

  17. #17
    January 31, 2010

    There’s a mockingbird around my house who’s learned to meow, because it makes Mgot come out from his lurking place to defend his territory, and totally ruins the element-of-surprise hunting tactic. I used to think that was impressive.

  18. #18 Planeten Paultje
    January 31, 2010

    Too bad there is actually very little recorded material of lyrebirds around. At least I can’t find much beyond this clip.

    I liked the story of the guy who was on his veranda, working on his type writer. He heard his typing echoed from the wood surrounding his house. Lyrebird syndrome ;-).

  19. #19 otrame
    January 31, 2010

    Hell, Nobby, my cockatiel, who never did learn to copy speech per se, imitates the way I laugh. He is also very good at the sound that you hear on WoW when you dismount. My dog likes to pretend to attack him (through the cage bars), making a kind of growly, snarly noise and Nobby is very good at copying that. It’s hilarious watching them snarling at each other.

  20. #20 cosmicaug
    January 31, 2010

    This was posted on a forum I frequent under the subject “A song that incorporates the artist’s own doom.”.

  21. #21 Patrick M
    January 31, 2010

    It turns out that there was unused footage of the lyrebird from the documentary.

  22. #22 Sili
    January 31, 2010

    Annoying to learn that it’s not a wild bird. The chainsaw sound mimicry implies that the wild forest is getting cut down. Underhanded manipulation.

    Dave Kellett (or his wife?) suggested that the clip would have been perfecter if the bird had turned to the camera and impersonated Attenborough as its pice de rsistance.

  23. #23 Breton
    January 31, 2010

    Some birds are amazing mimics. I have European Starlings in my neighbourhood who imitate chickadees and juvenile Herring Gulls very well.

  24. #24 Standard curve
    January 31, 2010

    I would like to play some audio from Star Wars for these birds out in the bush, because it would be even funnier to have nature documentaries of these birds imitating light sabers, blasters and Chewbacca.

  25. #25 Angel Kaida
    January 31, 2010

    OT, but I just thought I should tell you all: This blog is giving me nightmares. Last night, I dreamed that a teacher at my brother’s elementary school was giving out anti-choice bracelets and little gold coins with crucifixes on them as prizes for her kindergarteners, and I got sued for $800 when I tried to get rid of them. 🙁

    Granted, my Housemate was the other side’s attorney and my classics professor was the judge… and I won the case, by the way… but still. It was scary.

  26. #26 AnneH
    January 31, 2010

    The Adelaide Zoo has another great clip, and even free lyrebird ringtones, here- Lyrebird

  27. #27 AnneH
    January 31, 2010

    heh. trying that link again.

  28. #28 Ring Tailed Lemurian
    January 31, 2010

    #17 A bird that mimics a cat? Like this one?

    Here’s David Attenborough talking about the European discovery, and natural history, of Birds of Paradise.
    I hadn’t realised people originally thought these birds had no feet or wings, slept on clouds, and carried their eggs on their backs.

  29. #29 Pareidolius
    January 31, 2010

    He’s so accurate in his reproduction that the clip almost seemed like a parody once he started in with the chainsaw at the end. As reported by bird owners above, I shouldn’t be surprised since my neighbor’s Cockatoo now imitates me flawlessly . . . of course it’s me saying “sonofaBITCH” after a protracted episode last summer with a broken leaf blower. And the leaf blower starting? He does that too. And dogs, and car alarms, and crying babies and . . .

  30. #30 Sastra
    January 31, 2010

    What I find puzzling is the fact that sounding like he is not a lyre bird is evidently a wonderful way to attract female lyre birds. It’s not just that his song is “complicated” — it’s deceptive.

    So how does the female lyre bird evolve an instinct that reacts to what would seem to be counter-productive signals? “Oh, I hear a bird of a species I can’t mate with: I’m ever so intrigued and excited, because maybe it’s not at all what it sounds like. A chain saw? Oh, I must check that out — could be a healthy mate in it for me…” and so forth.

    If they already see that it’s a male lyre bird, then the act can be appreciated as clever, and the mate a fine fellow. But do the poor lyre females constantly have to run after every damn thing in the forest that makes a noise, always on the off chance that it might be a male lyre bird?

    Or was it the other way around? The females were sexually attracted to anything that sang, croaked, buzzed, or clicked, and so, what the hell, the males of the species evolved to work with that. Come hither my dear, I’m a sexy car alarm … gotcha!

  31. #31
    January 31, 2010

    Life of Birds is a brilliant doco. Just about anything with Sir David in will get me watching, too.

    When I watch Life of Birds I often wonder whether any of the dinosaurs might have demonstrated similar behaviours. Can you picture a mimicking raptor? 😉

  32. #32 Kagato
    January 31, 2010

    The chainsaw impression had me rolling on the floor.

    Then I found the clip of ‘Chook’ at the Adelaide Zoo, picking up the construction sounds.

    It’s remarkable that they can not only pick up pretty much any sound they hear, but they can mimic a whole bunch of sounds at once as well; At 1:45 he breaks into birdsong, and does an impression of several birds sounding off at once.

    At 2:48, he starts on construction sounds again, and runs through a whole gamut in one hit. Once he started on the power drill putting in screws, I was rolling on the floor again!

  33. #33 dae
    January 31, 2010

    Love these dinosaur vocalists.

  34. #34 Lord_Tristan
    January 31, 2010

    I now have the mental image of a utahraptor chasing me down while making chainsaw noises.
    Thanks for that.

  35. #35 maxamillion
    February 1, 2010

    I now have the mental image of a utahraptor chasing me down while making chainsaw noises.
    Thanks for that.

    Oh, so that’s what Noah used to cut down all that Gopher wood.

  36. #36 woodsong
    February 1, 2010


    Here in the northeast, the Northern Mockingbird is an impressive mimic, too. While I can’t claim to have heard them myself, I have heard descriptions. Think about having a bird outside your window at 5:00AM doing its cat-fight or lawnmower imitation….then think about a flock of them singing together!

    Sastra: Just speculating here. Considering that most birds have one song that they repeat, I suspect that a female is listening for an impressive variety of sounds coming from a single location in sequence. Most birds I’ve observed will sing for a couple of minutes, then flit to another branch and repeat. And if he uses the same “concert stage” frequently, his potential mates probably know where he’s likely to sing from and ignore songs from other parts of the territory.

    Of course, the flashy tail is also likely a powerful attractant, too. He’s beautiful!

  37. #37 brahdoo
    February 2, 2010

    this video was shown in my first day of evolutionary biology class as an undergrad. I still show it to people. Simply amazing…the bird is singing the song of its own demise.

  38. #38 llewelly
    February 2, 2010

    maxamillion | February 1, 2010 2:05 AM:

    I now have the mental image of a utahraptor chasing me down while making chainsaw noises. Thanks for that.

    Oh, so that’s what Noah used to cut down all that Gopher wood.

    No, no, no. It was Nephi, who, in the Book of Mormon, used the power of the Lord to domesticate utahraptor and use it to cut down trees to build a ship which the families of Lehi and Ishmael used to cross the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and then settle in the Americas. (This happened about 600 years before Jesus visited the Americas.) That is, after all, why it is called the utahraptor; it was first domesticated by Mormons.

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