top of page

The Soundtrack of Australia, Lyrebirds

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Watching the delightful Dr. Ann Jones stalking Superb Lyrebirds on ABC TV's The Soundtrack of Australia reminds me of all the times I've done likewise, trying not to frighten these shy and flightless birds while getting close enough to record their incredible songs.

A lyrebird sings
A male lyrebird in full song

At Swamplands, the property I owned for over 3 decades, we had a colony of around thirty of these remarkable songbirds inhabiting the dry sclerophyll forest and its patches of giant tree ferns clustered along the creek. We'd see them volplaning down towards the home paddock from higher up near the escarpment then bursting into full glorious song.

It was an inventory of all the area's bird calls and you'd often be fooled into thinking that Kookaburras were laughing all around you, or that Crimson Rosellas were laying claim to their territory, or that even a flock of Gang-Gangs had landed nearby. But then you'd hear that distinctive bell-like alarm call that was all their own; 'doi-ing, doi-ing,doi-ing'!

Trying not to step on a stick and alert them to my presence, I'd inch closer with my microphone which, I have to say, was a lot less high-tech than the super cool satellite-shaped dish with which Dr. Ann captures her sounds. I used an old recorder and cut the tape together with a razor blade!

Later, I'd broadcast the package, complete with whispered commentary, on my 2SER radio show, which I co-hosted with the wonderful Sarah MacDonald who you can hear on ABC Sydney Mornings show. Sarah always had a hard time trying not to laugh at my serious introductions to these segments, but I was obsessed with these birds and did my florid best to convey the visual beauty of them across the airwaves.

The Display

As you see in The Soundtrack of Australia, the display of their lyre-shaped tails is quite remarkable. They fully fan them over their heads to reveal the silvery underside of their feathers and quiver them seductively, as if inviting a mate into a refreshing waterfall.

When it's all over they tuck their tails behind them, camouflaged with their surroundings once again, and go about their daily business, scratching around in the undergrowth with their massive feet looking for bugs and worms.

Lyrebirds have been associated with the idea of genetic memory and I've often wondered, when they sing songs that are like no other bird in the forest, if the original owner is not extinct? Land clearing has claimed so many of our original creatures as have feral foxes, cats and dogs.

Natives v Ferals

Lyrebird feathers
Lyrebird tail feathers (underside)

One day as I was driving in to the property I saw a clump of their distinctive tail feathers lying by the road, punctured by canine teeth marks.

I'd already embarked on a campaign against such predators, catching them in cages, putting the traps in plastic bags then asphyxiating them on the exhaust pipe. Documenting the process in my Vogue Living column gained me a few enemies.

But I came to the conclusion that settler occupiers were also feral on this continent, a fact that lyrebirds constantly reflect back to us with a deft mimicry of chain saws ripping through their native habitat.

For a while I wore that victim's feathers in my Akubra to remind myself and others of this Australian icon, featured on the 10 cent coin and widely honoured in colonial architecture and decorative arts and more recently in the work of designers Linda Jackson and Catherine Martin.

Catherine martin uses lyrebird motifs in her designs
Detail of Catherine Martin's Mokum Collection Superb Lyrebird Wallpaper Eucalyptus

Now, over a decade later, the tail feathers I found sit in a vase in my living room. They've certainly seen better days but they're a constant and welcome reminder of the existence of this miraculous bird. In The Soundtrack of Australia, Lyrebirds sing out strong with a call to protect their native habitat, half of which was destroyed in the 2020 bushfires.

But these are clever creatures. They hid in wombat burrows to escape the inferno and are hanging in there.

Long may the Lyrebird recall the litany of all the birds of the bush, and of course, its own unique primal avian chant.


Commenting has been turned off.

Subscribe to Nell's newsletter

Learn about upcoming events, interviews and more.

Thanks for subscribing. We'll be in touch soon.

bottom of page