1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lyre-Bird

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[ 179 ]

LYRE-BIRD, the name by which one of the most remarkable birds of Australia is commonly known, the Menura superba or M. novae-hollandiae of ornithologists. It was first observed in 1798 in New South Wales, and though called by its finders a “pheasant” — from its long tail — the more learned of the colony seem to have regarded it as a bird-of-Paradise.[1] A specimen having reached England in 1799, it was described by General Davies as forming a new genus of birds, in the Linnean Society's Transactions (vi. p. 207, pl. xxii.), no attempt, however, being made to fix its systematic place. In 1802 L. P. Vieillot figured and described it in a supplement to his Oiseaux Dorés as a bird-of-Paradise (ii. pp. 30 seq., pls. 14-16), from drawings by Sydenham Edwards, sent him by Parkinson, the manager of the Leverian Museum. The first to describe any portion of its anatomy was T. C. Eyton, who in 1841 (Ann. Nat. History, vii. pp. 49-53) perceived that it was a Passerine bird and that it presented some points of affinity to the South American genus Pteroptochus. In 1867 Huxley stated that he was disposed to divide his very natural assemblage the Coracomorphae (essentially identical with Eyton's Insessores) into two groups, “one containing Menura, and the other all the other genera which have yet been examined” (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1867, p. 472) — a still further step in advance.[2] In 1875 A. Newton put forth the opinion in his article on birds, in the 9th edition of this Encyclopaedia, that Menura had an ally in another Australian form, Atrichia (see Scrub-Bird), which he had found to present peculiarities hitherto unsuspected, and he regarded them as standing by themselves, though each constituting a distinct family. This opinion was partially adopted in the following year by A. H. Garrod, who (Proc. Zool. Society, 1876, p. 518) formally placed these two genera together in his group of Abnormal Acromyodian Oscines under the name of Menurinae; omithologists now generally recognize at once the alliance and distinctness of the families Menuridae and Atrichiidae, and place them together to form the group Suboscines of the Diacromyodian Passeres.

Since the appearance in 1865 of J. Gould's Handbook to the Birds of Australia, little important information has been published concerning the habits of this form, and the account therein given must be drawn upon for what here follows. Of all birds, says that author, the Menura is the most shy and hard to procure. He has been among the rocky and thick “brushes” — its usual haunts — hearing its loud and liquid call-notes for days together without getting sight of one. Those who wish to see it must advance only while it is singing or scratching up the earth and leaves; and to watch its actions they must keep perfectly still. The best way of procuring an example seems to be by hunting it with dogs, when it will spring upon a branch to the height of 10 ft. and afford an easy shot ere it has time to ascend farther or escape as it does by leaps. Natives are said to hunt it by fixing on their heads the erected tail of a cock-bird, which alone is allowed to be seen above the brushwood. The greater part of its time is said to be passed upon the ground, and seldom are more than a pair to be found in company. One of the habits of the cock is to form small round hillocks, which he constantly visits during the day, mounting upon them and displaying his tail by erecting it over his head, drooping his wings, scratching and pecking at the soil, and uttering various cries — some his own natural notes, others an imitation of those of other animals. The tail, his most characteristic feature, only attains perfection in the bird's third or fourth year, and then not until the month of June, remaining until October, when the feathers are shed to be renewed the following season. The food consists of insects, especially beetles and myriapods, as well as snails. The nest is [ 180 ] placed near to or on the ground, at the base of a rock or foot of a tree, and is closely woven of fine but strong roots or other fibres, and lined with feathers, around all which is heaped a mass, in shape of an oven, of sticks, grass, moss and leaves, so as to project over and shelter the interior structure, while an opening in the side affords entrance and exit. Only one egg is laid, and this of rather large size in proportion to the bird, of a purplish-grey colour, suffused and blotched with dark purplish-brown.

Incubation is believed to begin in July or August, and the young is hatched about a month later. It is at first covered with dark down, and appears to remain for some weeks in the nest. It is greatly to be hoped that so remarkable a form as the lyre-bird, the nearly sole survivor apparently of a very ancient race of beings, will not be allowed to become extinct — its almost certain fate so far as can be judged — without many more observations of its manners being made. Several examples of Menura have been brought alive to Europe, and some have long survived in captivity.

Britannica Lyre-bird Exterior Feathers.png
Fig. 1.

Three species of Menura have been indicated — the old M. superba, the lyre-bird proper, which inhabits New South Wales, the southern part of Queensland, and perhaps some parts of Victoria; M. victoriae, separated from the former by Gould (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1862, p. 23), and said to take its place near Melbourne; and M. alberti, first described by C. L. Bonaparte (Consp. Avium, i. 215) on Gould's authority, and, though discovered on the Richmond river in New South Wales, having apparently a more northern range than the other two. All those have the apparent bulk of a hen pheasant, but are really much smaller, and their general plumage is of a sooty brown, relieved by rufous on the chin, throat, some of the wing-feathers and the tail-coverts. The wings, consisting of twenty-one remiges, are rather short and rounded; the legs[3] and feet very strong, with long, nearly straight claws. In the immature and female the tail is somewhat long, though affording no very remarkable character, except the possession of sixteen rectrices; but in the fully-plumaged male of M. superba and M. victoriae it is developed in the extraordinary fashion that gives the bird its common English name. The two exterior feathers (fig. 1, a, b) have the outer web very narrow, the inner very broad, and they curve at first outwards, then somewhat inwards, and near the tip outwards again, bending round forwards so as to present a lyre-like form. But this is not all; their broad inner web, which is of a lively chestnut colour, is apparently notched at regular intervals by spaces that, according to the angle at which they are viewed, seem either black or transparent; and this effect is, on examination, found to be due to the barbs at those spaces being destitute of barbules. The middle pair of feathers (fig. 2, a, b) is nearly as abnormal. These have no outer web, and the inner web very narrow; near their base they cross each other, and then diverge, bending round forwards near their tip. The remaining twelve feathers (fig. 3) except near the base are very thinly furnished with barbs, about ¼ in. apart, and those they possess, on their greater part, though long and flowing, bear no barbules, and hence have a hair-like appearance. The shafts of all are exceedingly strong. In the male of M. alberti the tail is not only not lyriform, but the exterior rectrices are shorter than the rest. (A. N.)


Britannica Lyre-bird Middle Feathers.png Britannica Lyre-bird Twelve Feathers.png
Fig. 2. Fig. 3.

  1. Collins, Account of New South Wales, ii. 87-92 (London, 1802).
  2. Owing to the imperfection of the specimen at his disposal, Huxley's brief description of the bones of the head in Menura is not absolutely correct. A full description of them, with elaborate figures, is given by Parker in the same Society's Transactions (ix. 306-309, pl. lvi. figs. 1-5).
  3. The metatarsals are very remarkable in form, as already noticed by Eyton (loc. cit.), and their tendons strongly ossified.