The Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) is a pheasant-sized Australian songbird, measuring approximately 100 cm (39 in) long and weighing around 1 kg (2.2 lb), with brown upper body plumage, greyish-brown below, rounded wings and strong legs. Among all extant songbirds only the Common and Thick-billed Ravens regularly outweigh it and only the much more slender Black Sicklebill can rival its length.
The Superb Lyrebird is featured on the reverse side of the Australian 10 cent coin.
An Australian endemic, the superb lyrebird can be found in the forests of southeastern Australia, from southern Victoria to southeastern Queensland. Its diet consists mainly of small invertebrates found on the forest floor or in rotting logs. In the 1930s a small number were introduced to Tasmania amongst ill-founded fears it was in danger of becoming extinct. The Tasmanian population is currently thriving. Now widespread and common throughout its large range, the Superb Lyrebird is evaluated as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The male is the bearer of the most elegant of all tails. The tail has sixteen feathers, with the two outermost together forming the shape of a lyre. Next within are two guard plumes and twelve long, lace-like feathers, known as filamentaries. Seven years are required for the tail to fully develop. During courtship displays, the male inverts his tail over his head, fanning his feathers to form a silvery white canopy. Young males and females have brown tail feathers which are camouflaged against the forest floor.
The superb lyrebird has an extraordinary ability to accurately mimic a huge variety of sounds. Both male and female lyrebirds sing but males are louder and sing more often.
In David Attenborough’s Life of Birds (ep. 6), the lyrebird is described as able to imitate twenty bird species’s calls, and a male is shown mimicking a car alarm and various camera shutters.
A recording of a Superb Lyrebird mimicking sounds of an electronic shooting game, workmen and chainsaws was added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry in 2013.
Superb lyrebirds breed in the depth of winter. Adult males start singing half an hour before sunrise from roosts high above the forest floor. Superb lyrebirds sing less often at other times of year but a stroll through their habitat on a rainy or misty day will sometimes find them active.
Superb lyrebirds have a promiscuous mating system. During the breeding season adult females and males defend separate territories and only females care for young. A female may visit several males before she mates but it is not known if she mates more than once. The female lays a single egg and builds a domed nest often camouflaging it with ferns or moss. The chick spends about nine months with the female before becoming independent.
One of the two lyrebirds in the family Menuridae, the other being the much rarer Albert’s Lyrebird.
The scientific name has been previously given as Menura superba. The bird was first illustrated and described scientifically as such by Major-General Thomas Davies on 4 November 1800 to the Linnean Society of London. His work shows the tail feathers correctly displayed.
Lyrebirds are ancient Australian animals. The Australian Museum has fossils of lyrebirds dating back to about 15 million years ago. The prehistoric Menura tyawanoides has been described from early Miocene fossils found at the famous Riversleigh site.