STUDY OF THE FEMALE LYREBIRD
Apart from the occasional dart across a country road or the swift glimpse as she flits through the bush undergrowth the female lyrebird is rarely seen. With the arrival of the breeding season and a knowledge of the hen’s behaviour this situation can easily be reversed with Mrs Lyrebird presenting the patient observer with many interesting and exciting experiences.
The following comments are based on direct observation of the female lyrebird in the area of the Far South Coast of New South Wales. Many of the statements made here-in are contrary to what has been written by others in the past in some books but I justify these inclusions by knowing my comments are the result of personal observation and are therefore accurate for this area.
The Breeding Season begins in late May and continues through to late September. The ideal scenario in which to study the hen lyrebird is at the actual nest site so it maybe necessary to cover wide areas of bush land to find a current nest. The extent of this search can be narrowed down by having, and using, a knowledge of the female’s habits .
Nests are usually built in the more open sclerophyll forest on slopes above the deep, fern gullies in which the adult lyrebirds usually live. I have never seen an example of a nest from a previous year being re-used in the new season but when an old nest is found it indicates a likely area in which to find the current one. It is worth noting that a hen will nest in the same area year after year and will always pick a similar type of support for her nest. For example, some prefer the tops of old stumps, while others opt for the low forks of a tree or even the tops of tree-ferns, but whatever is chosen it will be again chosen the following year. The highest I have seen a nest was in the fork of a tree 4.5 metres above the ground and the lowest in an old stump just one metre in height.
The nest itself is a large, bulky construction of twigs and leaves placed, as mentioned above, and beautifully lined with shredded bark and copious quantities of down feathers from the hen’s breast. Each stick has been bitten off at the required length and interwoven with bark and leaves. The result, when viewed from behind, gives the appearance that a large heap of twigs and leaves has fallen down and become entangled in the fork of the tree.This apparent act of nature supplies a unique form of camouflage. I have been fortunate to see a nest complete except for the domed roof and it was amazing to see four vertical pillars inserted on each side ready for the final addition.
So, the finished nest is rough and ready externally but warm and snug inside. Some studies state that the hen builds the nest first and then sets about finding the best mate. This I can not qualify but I am certain the male mates with as many hens as possible and has no further interest in hen, nest, egg or chick. One of the hens I studied travelled at least 1.5 kms. to mate .
The egg. Only one is laid and this about the size of a fowl’s egg. The colour varies but is usually a deep purple with grey or black streaks and blotches. It is known that the incubation time is about six weeks and it is during this time that the observer must be careful not to keep the hen off the nest for any length of time. Egg handling and nest disturbance must be avoided as the female will readily abandon the sitting.
The chick, when it appears, is nothing but a big ball of downy fluff with large, out of proportion legs and feet. It grows quickly but always retains the ungainly legs and toes.
Now is the time for observation.
On the observer’s arrival at the nest containing the chick the hen generally will be nearby but keeping out of sight. Things are about to take a dramatic turn.
Look into the nest.
This is all the chick can take so it lets out an ear-splitting screech that can easily be heard a kilometre away. Already the vocal chords are amazing. These are the same vocal chords that will later in life produce the incredible mimicry calls for which the Menura is famous.
Now the mother arrives and her sole purpose is the defending of her offspring. This can take various forms but the two I have found most common are protection through action and protection through voice. It is interesting to note that whichever method she adopts she will always use the same.
The protection through action is just that .. protection by attack. I have had the bird rush me at head height with tail feathers fully extended and wings fluffed up and at the last second veering off to land on a branch between me and the nest. From here she goes to the ground where she becomes busily engaged in scratching up the whole area while keeping her beady blue eyes on her intruders. Approaching the nest a second time will cause the chick to again utter its discordant screech which in turn will invoke another parental attack. During these aerial swirls the not previously seen orange colours in the tail feathers are vividly displayed. Indeed it is a sight to remember if these tail feather colours are highlighted against the sun. The whole sequence can be repeated but rather than distress the birds we beat a retreat to the car. The hen is not yet satisfied so she follows us all the way keeping only a few metres behind us. Finally she leaves us and returns to console her offspring.
One of the parent birds I have been studying adopts the protection through voice method. The moment the chick utters its screech the hen arrives and becomes extremely active scratching up the area or parading through the tree tops above and around the nest. While doing all this she backs up her actions with various types of calls. Listening to the sound recording we made on one of these visits I noted there were six different sounds produced ranging from the loud vibrant cough like noise through to the low repeated tapping sound. This latter one was only used when she was on a particular branch above the nest.
It is interesting to note that on all of my several visits to both of these nests both mothers maintained their individual methods of protection. The degree of intensity by both hens decreased as the chicks aged.
We developed a pleasing rapport with one of the hens. On our first visit she was extremely agitated and very protective but as our visits continued she gradually learnt to accept us. On the first visit she followed us all the way back to the track and saw us away from her chick..on the last few visits she simply followed us for a few steps before returning to the nest area. Towards the end of our visits she was pleased to accept offerings of worms we made and she was quite at ease to come right up to our hand to receive the offering. Not quite taken from the hand but the very next best thing.It was apparent to us that she now knew we were not a threat to her chick and our attendance was tolerated.
On my very last visit the nest was empty and she and her chick had disappeared. With much sadness I stood at the nest and realised that our association was finally over. In hindsight I feel confident that she and I have both gained from the experience.
So it is now with optimism that I look forward to next season when I hope she will again nest somewhere in the same area and our partnership can be renewed.