When you think of bird noises, you probably think of tweets, chirps, whistles, hoots, honks, screeches, or other common calls and songs. While these are all common in the avian world, some birds have hidden talents to create complex songs, even ones stolen from other species.
Among them is the Superb lyrebird, an Australian bird species that has gained notoriety for its apparent ability to mimic all sorts of bird calls and other sounds, natural and unnatural.
The name Superb isn’t just an opinion. That’s the common name for the species Menura novaehollandiae, one of Australia’s iconic species.
Distributed across southeastern Australia, the Superb lyrebird is roughly pheasant-sized, with long legs and a beautiful, wispy tail, making it one of the world’s largest songbirds.
The bird is featured on Australia’s 10-cent coin. Still, a clip from David Attenborough’s 1998 BBC documentary series Life of Birds truly brought these birds to the big screen and the general public’s knowledge.
In the clip, Attenborough watches and narrates as a Superb lyrebird captures our attention by mimicking a camera’s shutter or motor drive and the grinding of a chainsaw.
It’s captivating viewing, but, as it turns out, it’s not truly “wild.” According to the online outlet The Conversation, two of the three lyrebirds in the video are captives.
One of them, named Chook, reportedly picked up his mechanical noises when the Adelaide Zoo was building a panda enclosure. Chook, who died in 2011 at age 32, became quite famous for his mimicking abilities.
There isn’t much evidence of lyrebirds picking up mechanical sounds from their natural surroundings. Still, the fact that Chook could do so is evidence that certain birds could do it if they regularly heard those noises.
For the birds’ sakes, however, let’s hope they don’t have to contend with too many chainsaws in their natural environment.
A second species of lyrebird in Australia, Albert’s lyrebird, also has an impressive vocal array. According to a study from the University of Queensland reported in the Conversation, these lesser-known lyrebirds can mimic up to 11 different species and 37 different sounds.
That’s an impressive feat, even if they’re not picking up chainsaw noises in their everyday lives.
Like many other bird species across the globe, Albert’s lyrebirds face significant threats, including fires that have engulfed their habitat.
They’re listed as “near threatened” across their entire range and “vulnerable” in New South Wales.
What other species could make sounds like a chainsaw?
Unless you live in Australia, you will not likely hear a lyrebird near you. So what other birds could potentially sound like a chainsaw?
While we’re on the topic of mimicking birds, mockingbirds have also been known to mimic certain human sounds, including car alarms.
According to the National Audubon Society, there are a total of 16 species with “mockingbird” in their names. Of the 16, only the northern mockingbird is native to North America.
The Northern mockingbird’s Latin name translates to “many-tongued mimic,” They are known to sing several hundred songs and mimic machinery, music, and other wildlife, like frogs and toads.
Despite having “northern” in its name, residents of Canada and many states considered to be “northern,” such as the Dakotas, Montana, Washington, and Minnesota, are not likely to see or hear mockingbirds.
Their year-round range encompasses much of the southern United States from the east to the west coast and certain areas a bit further north during their breeding season, including areas of Wisconsin, Oregon, Idaho, Maine, and southeastern Canada, among other areas.
You may hear a Northern mockingbird at any hour of the day or night, as they have been known to call well into the night.
Other North American birds that are mimics include thrashers, catbirds, and European Starlings.
Starlings, one of the most common species across the continent since their introduction in the 1890s, can mimic both birds and inanimate objects like motorcycles and tea kettles, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Starlings are common pretty much everywhere, including cities, suburbs, and parks. They are also sometimes kept as pets, where they can learn to mimic human speech.
The Cornell Lab says the brown thrasher, one of several thrasher species in America, “may be the champion mimic in North America” due to their ability to sing up to 2,000 different songs.
The brown thrasher’s range occupies much of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.
The drum of the Ruffed grouse
Mockingbirds and lyrebirds mimic other birds with their voices, but what about the rapid wing flaps of the Ruffed grouse?
The Ruffed grouse’s mating display, which includes flapping its wings rapidly in an action called “drumming,” has long been compared to the sound made by trying to start up an old car or tractor.
It starts with a series of hard, slow wing movements, speeding up until it creates a unique thumping noise.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this deep, rapid thumping is caused by a small vacuum of air under the bird’s wings, which creates a sound that can be heard for up to a quarter of a mile.
The Ruffed grouse is a northern species most common in the dense forests of Canada, the north woods of midwestern states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain ranges.
For those in the American Southwest, the Cornell Lab also describes the song of the Cactus wren as that of “a car that just won’t start,” although the Cactus wren’s sound isn’t nearly as deep as that of the Ruffed grouse.
Frequently asked questions
What bird makes a chainsaw noise?
The Superb lyrebird, a resident of Australia, developed a reputation as the bird capable of mimicking a chainsaw during a 1998 episode of BBC’s Life of Birds with David Attenborough.
Mockingbirds are also known to mimic mechanical noises, such as that of a car alarm sounding.
While the world’s two species of lyrebirds are native only to Australia, mockingbirds are distributed across the globe, including North America’s northern mockingbird.
What animal sounds like a saw?
While it isn’t exactly a “sawing” sound, some people say that the Northern Saw-whet owl’s song sounds like someone sharpening a saw. That’s how this small owl got its name, in fact.
The call sounds like a “toot-toot-toot” pattern and would never be confused with a chainsaw, but it can certainly be an unfamiliar sound if you’re out in the woods late at night.
Almost all of the United States is within the Saw-whet owl’s range at some point in the year.
What bird sounds like a jackhammer?
Nicknamed nature’s avian jackhammers, the over 200 species of woodpeckers spread worldwide could easily be compared with the man-made construction tool.
Woodpeckers drum to communicate with other woodpeckers, establishing their territory and impressing mates.
Each species’ drum is a little different, including America’s largest woodpecker, the Pileated woodpecker.
These birds’ wingspans can stretch over two feet, and they are impressive specimens when seen swooping through the forest or when heard drumming loudly on trees.