Thursday, 28 October 2010

A Quiet Stroll

Living up to the (largely undeserved) reputation (Shane Warne has a lot to answer for) of their human counterparts, Australian birds are a noisy, boisterous lot. Whereas a rural ramble in many parts of Europe is quite likely to be disturbed by aircraft noise - and, indeed, I seem to remember Gaw complaining a couple of months ago about the tiresome clamour of sparrows - you'd be hard pressed, given the racket that our native birds make, to notice, even if there was a flight path (let alone sparrows) above you on a walk in the Australian bush.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos are in many ways the worst offenders. While a flurry of the smaller types of parrots will shoot through the air, sounding no more offensive than a flock of squeaky rubber toys, cockatoos tear about in raucous crowds, ripping through the quiet dawn hours with cries like rusty barbed-wire.

Despite the purity of their white plumage, with its wonderful faint blush of yellow underneath the wing, (which always makes me wonder about the theory of evolution as an entire explanation for everything; I can't think what possible use that hidden, subtle bit of colouring could have), cockies are the thugs of the Australian feathered world. When not causing havoc, (they like to tear up plants and trees with a vandalistic, wanton pleasure), they lounge about in gum trees, biding their time. For a minute, it seems the mighty eucalypt ahead of you is strewn with bits of torn paper. Then, unexpectedly, the scraps erupt, their jagged shrieks slashing through the silence as they rise into the sky.

For those who haven't experienced cockatoo 'song', here is an individual in full voice:

(What does the woman at the end mean when she says, 'Do you want me to get him?' I don't fancy that bird's chances)

and here is a mob of them all screeching at once:

Much better known, abroad at least, are kookaburras, whose song, it seems to me, belies their essentially depressive natures. While they can party like the next bird when the mood occasionally takes them:

(Embedding is disabled on this one)

more often when I come upon them they are by themselves. They are rather stout birds and they tend to sit up unnecessarily straight, reminding me of a child who's been left out of something and is sitting on their own in a corner of the playground trying to pretend that they don't actually mind. They are not streamlined like their cousins, the kingfishers, but permanently fluffed up, and the feathers on their heads seem to be set to a default mode of tousled, somehow adding to the impression that they have just been mildly affronted . This video provides two good examples, except, unlike my local birds, these two seem to have posture problems - they look more as if they are loitering on a street corner with their hands in their pockets. The first one is less tubby than the ones I usually see. Still, like them, he appears pretty dejected, despite a rather feeble attempt to bung on a bit of false bonhomie. The second one can't even be bothered to do that:

Less rasping, but still fairly high decibel, are the cries of the Torresian crows. The sound they make is not beautiful, or even musical really. It is more the kind of sound husbands make when they aren't really listening. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' they croak wearily (the Torresian crows, that is), 'yeah, yeah, yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.' Sometimes the birds interrupt this repetitive observation with a melancholy cry that combines the voice of the saddest baby in the world with that of an exceptionally depressed toad. 'Ah, ah, ah, ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh,' they go.

Oddly, although their voices have a sneering quality, Torresian crows seem to be very sociable.  'I'm going,' one will shout, as he launches himself from a branch, 'I'm going, I'm going, I'm going,' his mates reply mockingly. 'Go on then, go on then.'  They sound like a bunch of drinkers at a bar, jeering at the one who manages to drag himself away. But almost immediately regret creeps in - they remember that they like to go about together. Before a minute is up, they're screaming after the original pioneer, 'We're coming, we're coming.'  They don't sound enthusiastic, just resigned. 'We're following, we're following,' they call as they sail through the air to their next perch, 'we made it, oooooooooooooooooooooooh.'

It is Torresian crows, I think, that also amuse themselves by making a repetitive noise that is a bit like the sound of someone trying over and over again to start a motor or a rather weak engined chain saw and another which mimics an old man trying to be sick.

These videos go only some way to capturing the full range of the Torresian crow's repertoire:

Currawongs are also big contributors to the great Australian cacophony. Surprisingly, given that she is a great lover of the animal kingdom (no, not THAT Animal Kingdom), my mother hates currawongs. I have to admit they are pretty alarming, especially when you stare too long at their terrifying beaks (the theory that birds are the most direct descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs, rather than reptiles, seems all too plausible after doing that for a while). It is rumoured that they will kill smaller birds, for pleasure. Despite this, they do have lovely voices and their songs are immensely evocative - when I'm abroad and see someone in Australia being interviewed, the sound of a currawong singing somewhere in the background can usually make me homesick:

Mind you, if anyone wants to guarantee inducing homesickness, it is the sound of an Australian magpie that they will need. These remarkable birds produce a song which has a carefree quality. It is the sound of someone singing in the shower when they don't know that they can be heard and of kids bursting out of an exam room on a sunny day. While none of the videos I can find do justice to the impression of impromptu delight that these creatures can produce, when at their best their voices make me think of crystal and honey and water all somehow combined. Apparently they have two larynxes, which means they can sing in harmony with themselves, a fairly impressive feature. Nevertheless, I hesitate to call them musicians, especially since learning about the black palm cockatoo of New Guinea, which snaps off a twig to make a drumstick and beats time with it on a hollow log while it sings. Our magpies are not that skilled (even though, in the second video below, the bird does appear to be treating the guitar as an accompaniment to its performance), but they are still a pleasure to hear:


  1. What a performance! Thanks - I read it in my head with a Johnny Morris voice.

    I saw a flock of lime green parakeets on Hampstead Heath last winter. The sight was so striking I've forgotten what they sounded like.

  2. Kookaburras and magpies - I love 'em

  3. What a lovely post. Sparrow noise indeed, LOL.

    All you need to compete this is the Gang gang! Oh, and don't get my husband started on the bellbirds! Pretty for a while, but boy they can become incessant.

    Each year we go to Thredbo after Xmas, and one of the most common sounds above the treeline is the Crows. What is it with them? How can they can sound so creepy and plaintive at the same time?

    But, so glad you ended with the Magpie...what a delight they are.

  4. I loved the magpies when I lived in australia, but I have to say that I always found their little warbles rather melancholy. I have a very strong memory of australia that involves waking up on sunday mornings and lying in bed looking at my pillow whilst through the open window drifts the sound of front lawns being mowed and magpies warbling.

  5. There is a New Zealand poem by Dennis Glover called ""Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle" which is the story of the carving of a family farm from the bush and its eventual return to wilderness. The last line of each stanza is "...and "Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said." Apparently the magpies in NZ are in fact not native, but are introduced Australian magpies. Something new I learned today, thanks to you and Google.

  6. Gaw - how clever of you, I do sound exactly like Johnnie Morris, I wonder how you knew
    Nurse - what about the poor old Torresian crow?
    Whispering - I wonder if you are old enough to remember Bellbird the series: I was sad the other day when my brother told me the ABC had wiped every copy of every programme, so that they could reuse the videotape
    Worm - I suppose, like humans, some magpies are less cheerful than others?
    M-H - I'm going to try to find that poem - it's not a bad approximation of the magpie gurgle, is it, that Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle?

  7. I've tried to find a copy online, but of course (quite rightly) it can't be legally reproduced. I did find this wonderful picture of Glover. He was famously curmudgeonly, and the following is my favourite Glover story. Until the 80s there was an overnight train between Wellington and Auckland (two, even, in the 50s and 60s). At a dreadfully early hour these trains would pull into Mercer, where until the late 50s there was a 'tearooms' that provided the first chance for 'refreshments' since Taumaranui the night before. Railway tea was famously stewed and black, and Glover is reputed to have spat out a mouthful and declared "This squalid tea of Mercer is not strained!" He'd had all of a (probably sleepless) night to come up with it, of course, and it's probably apocryphal, but I like it.

  8. I thought of that poem too. Never has bird noise been more accurately onomatopoiaised.

    There's a copy here:

  9. That's rather wonderful, thank you.

    The crows remind me most of the black cat that lives two door down. He "sings" like that on my garden fence about 2am.

  10. Thanks for that link, Umbagollah, and for the joke, M-H, (unlike the tea, it was strained, but still cleverer than anything I could ever muster, esprit d'escalier or de l'escalier, whichever it is, being my speciality. In the photograph, he looks like one of Thomas Hardy's less blessed characters.
    I think that black cat is trying to tell you he loves you, Kevin