1902 Encyclopedia > Lyre Bird

Lyre Bird

LYRE-BIRD, the name by which one of the most remarkable feathered inhabitants of Australia is commonly known, the Menura superba or M. novae-hollandiae of ornithologists. First discovered, January 24, 1798, on the other side of the river Nepean in New South Wales by an exploring party from Paramatta, under the leadership of one Wilson, a single example was brought into the settle-ment a few days after, 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 [115-1]. A specimen having reached England in the following year, it was described by General Davies as forming a new genus of birds, in a paper read before the Linnean Society of London, November 4, 1800, and subsequently published in that Society's Transactions (vi. p. 207, pi. xxii.), no attempt, however, being made to fix its systematic place. Other examples were soon after received, but Latham, who considered it a Gallinaceous bird, in 1801 knew of only five having arrived. The temporary cessation of hostilities in 1802 permitted Vieillot to become acquainted with this form, though not apparently with any published notice of it, and he figured and described it in a supplement to his Oiseaux Dorés as a Bird of Paradise (ii. pp. 30 sq., pis. 14-16), from drawings by Sydenham Edwards, sent him by Parkinson, the manager of the Leverian Museum. [115-2]

It would be needless here to enter at any length on the various positions which have been assigned to this singular form by different systematizers—who had to judge merely from its superficial characters. The first to describe any portion of its anatomy was Eyton, who in 1841 (Ann. Nat. History, vii. pp. 49-53) perceived that it was truly a member of the Order then called Insessores, and that it presented some points of affinity to the South American genus Pteroptochus [115-3]; but still there were many who could not take advantage of this step in the right direction. In 1867 Professor 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 [115-4]. In 1875 the present writer put forth the opinion in this work (BIRDS, vol. iii. p. 471) that Menura had an ally in another Australian form, Atrichia (see SCRUB-BIRD), which he had found to present peculiarities hitherto unsuspected, and accordingly regarded them as standing by themselves, though each constituting a distinct Family. This opinion was partially adopted in the following year by 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; but the author sees no reason to change his mind, and herein he is corroborated by Mr Sclater, who has recently (Ibis, 1880, p. 345) recognized at once the alliance and distinctness of the Families Menuridae and Atrichiidae, forming of them a group which he calls Pseudoscines.

Since the appearance in 1865 of Gould's Handbook to the Birds of Australia, little if any fresh 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 get-ting sight of one. Those who wish to see it must ad-vance only while it is occupied in singing or scratching up the earth and leaves; and to watch its actions they must keep perfectly still—though where roads have been made through the bush it may be more often observed and even approached on horseback. 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 feet and afford an easy shot ere it has time to ascend further or escape as it does by leaps. Another method of stealing upon it is said to be practised by the natives, and is attained by the hunter fixing on his head 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 wonderful 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 always 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. [116-1]

Incubation is believed to begin in July or August, and the young is hatched about a month later. It is at first covered with white down, and appears to remain for some weeks in the nest. How much more is needed to be known for a biography of this peculiar and beautiful creature may be inferred by those who are aware of the diligence with which the habits of the much more easily observed birds of the northern hemisphere have been recorded, and of the many interesting points which they present. 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 and fuller details of them placed on record. The zoologists of Australia alone can do this, and the zoologists of other countries expect that they will.

Several examples of Menura have been brought alive to Europe, but none have long survived in captivity. Indeed a bird of such active habits, and requiring doubtless facilities for taking violent exercise, could not possibly be kept long in confinement until the method of menageries is vastly improved, as doubtless will be the case some day, and, we may hope, before the disappearance from the face of the earth of forms of vertebrate life most instructive to the zoologist.

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

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Three species of Menura have been indicated—the old M. superba, the Lyre-bird proper, now known for more than eighty years, which inhabits New South Wales, the southern part of Queensland, and perhaps some parts of the colony 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. p. 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 [116-2] 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 chesnut 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 a quarter of an inch 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.)


[115-1] Collins, Account of New South Wales, ii. pp. 87-92 (London, 1802).

[115-2] Vieillot called the bird '' Le Parkinson " ! and hence Beehstein, who seems to have been equally ignorant of what had been published in England concerning it, in 1811 (Kurze Uebersicht, &c., p. 134), designated it Parkinsonius mirabilis !! Shaw also, prior to 1813, figured it (Nat. Miscellany, xiv. p. 577) under the name of Paradisea parkinsoniana. The name " Menura lyra, Shaw," was quoted by Lesson in 1831 (Tr. d'Ornithologie, p. 473), and has been repeated by many copyists of synonymy, but the present writer cannot find that such a name was ever applied by Shaw. Vieillot's principal figure (ut supra), which has a common origin with that given by Collins, has been extensively copied, in spite of its inartistic not to say inaccurate drawing. It is decidedly inferior to that of Davies (ut supra), the original describer and delineator.

[115-3] He subsequently (Osteol. Avium, pp. 97, 98, pl. 3, F and pl, 14) described and figured the skeleton.

[115-4] Owing to the imperfection of the specimen at his disposal, Professor 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 Professor Parker in the same Society's Transactions (ix. pp. 306-309, pi. lvi. figs. 1-5).

[116-1] The nest and egg of Menura alberti, now in the British Museum, are figured in Proc. Zool. Society, 1853, Aves, pl. 53. The egg of M. victoriae is represented in Journ. für Ornithologie, 1956, pl. ii. fig. 18, under the name of M. superba, but the real egg of that species does not seem to have been figured at all.

[116-2] The metatarsals are very remarkable in form, as already noticed by Eyton (loc. cit.), and their tendons strongly ossified.

The above article was written by Alfred Newton.

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