According to La Trobe University’s Dr Steve Leonard, Lyrebirds were found seeking refuge in wombat burrows as fire swept overhead.
‘There were also stories about Lyrebirds coming out into open paddocks to escape the fire, to areas that were less likely to burn’.
‘It seems like lots of animals, in landscapes where fire is a common part of the ecosystem, know how to escape fires. They will head down into wet gullies, or into rivers. It makes sense that it is an innate response to not getting burnt’.
The Lyrebird also sought shelter in moist gullies, its most favoured foraging ground. Astoundingly, the gullies remained largely unburnt, thanks to the Lyrebird and their ability to make a firebreak by mulching the forest floor.
To the untrained eye, the behavior of the Lyrebird might appear like that of a chicken, as they scratch into the leaf litter. A natural forager, the Lyrebird uses its powerful legs and large feet instinctively to move twigs, leaves and other bits of eco-fuel to prey on small bugs and worms. As an indirect result they create areas with very little leaf litter and, therefore, very little fuel for fire.
The Lyrebird instinctively created a safe haven during and after Black Saturday. It was these gullies that became a critical habitat post-fire, forming unburnt patches in a blackened landscape. Here, Lyrebirds managed to find what was left of their food source.
‘Those wet gullies are the core habitat for Lyrebirds—that’s where you’ll mainly find them in the forest’.
‘When we started looking around after the Black Saturday bushfires, we noticed that often the fire had stopped at the margin of those gullies—particularly where there was a lot of Lyrebird activity’, Steve says.
The Lyrebird had survived bushfires in the past, but they had never faced anything as severe as Black Saturday. While Steve admits that some Lyrebirds did perish during Black Saturday, he recognises how remarkable it is that a species unable to flee was not lost.
As the Lyrebird was recovering post-fire, it kept its head down, hard at work. In its thoughtful way, by searching for its next meal, the Lyrebird was in turn helping its home recover. In its modest way, the Lyrebird is a natural fire warden, indirectly protecting wildlife and their environment from bushfire.
By studying the trail left behind by two of Black Saturday’s most intense bushfires, Steve and a team of La Trobe University researchers found that the Lyrebird was responsible for reducing natural litter by approximately 25 per cent. By raking the forest floor in low-fire conditions the Lyrebird can eliminate the potential for fire altogether.
SURVIVOR. PROTECTOR. ENGINEER.
As well as being an unassuming protector of the park, Kinglake National Park Ranger Tony Fitzgerald says the Lyrebird doubles as one of its ‘ecosystem engineers’, reshaping the surface of the forest floor.
‘When you look at an area that has been worked over by Lyrebirds it is incredible how they encourage the cycle of nutrients— leaves, sticks and rotting logs—and how that gets reabsorbed back into the soil. They really are vital to the forest ecosystem’.
When I stood on the track in Mason Falls watching the Lyrebird for the first time, I had no idea that these words would come to describe the bird.
For many Victorians, including Tony, the Lyrebird is a reminder of nature’s perseverance.
‘For me, I find that all my encounters with Lyrebirds are special. They seem to bob up at the most amazing times’, he says.
‘The deeper I looked, the more I was astounded. Not only at its survival, but how the Lyrebird is part of the forest ecosystem’.
Tony says the Lyrebird is also close to the hearts of Kinglake locals.
‘For the community, it is an iconic animal—you associate that wet Kinglake National forest with the sound of the Lyrebird in the colder times of year. I think it is a really special thing for people who live up here’.
While the Lyrebird has an enduring tale of survival, it is now facing its gravest threat to date: climate change.
Climate predictions for this part of the world are indicating that it will only get hotter and dryer with each year. This means that with each coming summer we will not only have a scorching reminder of Black Saturday, but also a yearly fear that things could get much worse.
This year has been one of Victoria’s driest winters and, according to Dr Steve Leonard, a severe fire season is on the horizon.
‘The more of those fires we have, the more there will be a direct impact on the Lyrebird and other species being directly killed by the fire, but also changes to habitat’, he says.
However, the Lyrebird has proven it certainly knows how to cope with fire.
‘There have been fires in that part of the forest and there will be again. It is just a part of how they operate. The Lyrebird is one of the species that comes through a fire really well’.
As I worry about what lies ahead, the Lyrebird is diligently working away in Kinglake. It may be mimicking a tune as another bird flies past, or performing an intricate mating dance to attract a partner. Most likely, its long legs are raking the soil, mulching the forest floor.
It’s just going about another day—unknowingly protecting itself and the park, determined to survive.