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Much of Australia’s wildlife is still recovering from the devastating 2019-20 summer bushfires, and among them is the superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae). Renowned for their mimicking abilities, and famously found on our 10 cent coin, it’s estimated that up to 40% of this unique songbird’s distribution has been negatively impacted by the bushfires.
With over 12 million hectares of forest burnt, Australia’s wildlife has since suffered due to a lack of vegetation and habitat. While the superb lyrebird was once a common species, our knowledge of its population density has now become worryingly unclear.
WWF-Australia has helped fund a research study run by experts at BirdLife Australia and La Trobe University aimed at finding how the 2019-20 fires affected the superb lyrebird population. By implementing fire severity mapping and regular observational surveys, we can determine how much lyrebird habitat was burnt and where the remaining healthy habitat is located. If we can help the superb lyrebird return to its pre-fire population, it’s a sign that ecosystems are healing.
What makes the superb lyrebird so special?
The superb lyrebird is one of the world’s biggest songbirds. With their elaborate long tail feathers, unusual courtship practice and incredible mimicking skills, these birds are capable of imitating almost any sound they are exposed to. From the calls of other birds to the rumble of a chainsaw, these birds have perfected the art of mimicry as a way to attract mates and defend their territory.
The superb lyrebird is found along the Australian southeast coast rainforests of the Great Dividing Range, and they play an important role in their ecosystem. The lyrebird has incredibly strong feet and claws that it uses to forage through the rainforest floor. While scratching through the dirt looking for invertebrates to eat, they turn over a massive quantity of soil and so help plant germination and other animals find food.
The superb lyrebird is an umbrella species, meaning other species will benefit from efforts like this study focused on restoring the lyrebird population. This study not only helps the lyrebirds recover but all the other species that live in their habitat. The aim is to get the superb lyrebird back to their pre-fire population numbers so their entire ecosystem can heal.
How were superb lyrebirds impacted by the 2019-20 bushfires?
Lyrebirds are quite well equipped to survive bushfires and have been found to shoot down wombat holes or take shelter in creeks and dams. They’re good at finding ways to survive an immediate threat, but it’s the aftermath of the fires that has caused the most damage. The 2019-20 bushfires destroyed enormous expanses of habitat for thousands of Australian animals, including the superb lyrebird. The loss of habitat and risk of starvation is the real threat caused by these fires.
Alex Maisey is an expert from La Trobe University who specialises in lyrebirds and their role as ecosystem engineers. As an important member of the team conducting this study, Alex has witnessed the aftermath of the bushfires first-hand.
“It’s just devastating. The scale of habitat that has been lost is extraordinary. It’s been very hard to witness so much destruction. Even now a year on, we’re still seeing evidence of the fires everywhere.”
Entire ancient rainforests previously untouched were lost in the bushfires, and with it, the balance in habitat biodiversity. Alex says the study has found that areas of untouched lyrebird habitat are becoming increasingly rare.
“I was walking through a burnt-out rainforest - a once cool temperate rainforest - and I came across half of a lyrebird’s nest. It was built out of burnt sticks and clear it was only half-built because the lyrebird didn’t have the energy to finish. It was so sad to see this beautiful little half nest just abandoned in the forest.”
Alex says while it will take a long time, restoring rainforest habitat is crucial to ensuring the future of the superb lyrebird.
“We need to help build back the lyrebird habitat in the right areas, with the right vegetation and the right conditions to ensure they can play their ecosystem role and restore balance to the rainforest.”
What other threats face the superb lyrebird?
On top of habitat degradation and lack of vegetation, Alex says the superb lyrebird faces other threats now more than ever before.
“Feral deer are a major issue to the rehabilitation of the superb lyrebird population. They trample the vegetation and eat all the healthy native plants, leaving behind a severe imbalance in the ecosystem. This problem has only become worse since the fires, with wildlife being forced to share smaller habitats and face more competitors for survival.”
The threat of deer, foxes and feral cats have been exacerbated by the fires, posing a significant roadblock to the superb lyrebird’s recovery. In order to reproduce and survive, the lyrebird needs dense underbrush and particular native vegetation. In many areas, the soil has been burnt out and there’s only rock left. Alex says in others, fire-prone vegetation has overtaken the once native habitat.
“This type of vegetation increases the likelihood of bushfires as they are dry and grow back quickly. They like to burn regularly, and so fire creates more fire, and those areas might never return to their pre-fire state.”
This is where the results of the lyrebird study come in.
What has the study found?
By conducting surveys and observations on lyrebirds and their foraging patterns, Alex and his team from BirdLife Australia and La Trobe University are able to detect what needs to be done to help. With the aid of volunteers, Alex is able to observe areas of burnt and unburnt lyrebird territory to compare current population data.
“The volunteers help us collect surveys to provide the baseline data to get back to where we once were. It’s hard to get an exact estimate of lyrebird numbers across our southeast rainforest regions, but we have seen a significant decrease in lyrebird activity in these areas since the summer of 2020.”
This data is used to figure out what areas are most likely to flourish with the aid of introducing the right kind of vegetation. Each step in the restoration process is carefully planned out to offer lyrebirds and other animals quick escape routes and refuges from potential future fires. Alex says much of his work is also focused on protecting the remaining unburnt areas of forest.
“Long-standing untouched areas of lyrebird habitat are becoming exceedingly rare. We have to do all we can to ensure the safety of these areas in the hope it will promote similar growth elsewhere.”
Alex says while recovery will take a long time, he believes this project is an incredibly important step forward in the right direction.
“After witnessing the bushfires, it really does give you a sense of hope to see so many members of the community willing to volunteer and get involved to help the lyrebird population get back on its feet.”
How can WWF supporters help the lyrebird?
The impact of the 2019-20 bushfires are affecting Australia’s wildlife, and animals like the superb lyrebird need our help to recover. Alex says one of the simplest ways to help is by making simple everyday changes.
“To push the government to do something about this, we need your support. Be environmentally conscious. Get out there and enjoy nature, because we won’t know what we’ve lost if we don’t appreciate what we’ve got.”
By making small changes we can help animals like the superb lyrebird recover. Find out more about our goal to Regenerate Australia, and how you can help.
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