Bird Song (extracts)


by David Brooks

View David Brooks' Biography

David Brooks is a writer, animal advocate and Hon. Ass/Prof at University of Sydney.

Bird Song (extracts)


strange birds / crying their urgency with human voices

- Denise Levertov


Birdsong. Where do I begin? Maybe the word song is part of it. That shutting out. That keeping at bay. What we are shutting out. I prefer call. The call of the whip bird, the call of the magpie lark (which is so different to the magpie's). But even that's a problem. If song shuts out call, for example, call shuts out song, though it's hardly a binary matter. They — call, song — shut out other things, like talking to oneself, or the herding or hunting sounds whip birds use to stir up insects from the leaf-litter. Or the conversation, the exchanges of opinions and information of swallows, memories of vast landscapes, epic journeys, poisoned oases, the joy of distant arrivals.

Australian Magpies

I'm wondering what the magpies might be saying when they come in the morning. Those, in any case, who've gotten used to receiving a small scattering of peanuts (four or five) when I see them outside the door. On the brighter, sunnier days they'll come early, or one of them will, and perch on the deck-rail outside the bedroom, calling to announce they're there. Then use a slightly different call when they see me, and still another once I've given them something. This last call could be (1) thanks (as I like to think of it — though in general we human animals have to learn not to expect thanks from non-humans), or perhaps just acknowledgement, or (2, and more likely) a request for more, (3, even more likely) a signal to other magpies to come, that there is food here, or (4, and less likely: the song trap) sheer and simple celebration at having received something.

Some of these options will be situational. With regard to the third, one of the magpies who comes most frequently and insistently at the moment is a female with a young son. He's shier than she, and, though he'll come to the deck-rail or front veranda with her, will fly off when I appear. It seems possible that the call she makes once she's had a few peanuts herself is a combination of a request for more and a call to her son (or someone else) to come and get some. I suggest this in part because, quite frequently at this stage — my favourite moment — the magpie or magpies who've received peanuts will turn around, their backs to the door, lift their heads, and call loudly into the air.

With regard to the first option above, there are magpies who'll come singly to my writing-room in the cabin below the house, and whose response to being given peanuts is quite different, a murmur and perhaps a quiet wisp of song, seemingly intended for no one's hearing but my own. That is, I've noticed (as countless other humans and non-humans must have done before me) that magpies have open-beaked vocalisations, for distance messaging and closed-beaked vocalisations for more intimate and proximate communication. When they make closed-beaked vocalisations while looking directly at me, I am inclined to think, if they haven't yet received any peanuts, that they're asking for some, and when they make them, looking directly at me, after they've received some, it seems to me they're making friendly acknowledgement of receipt.

That they'll sometimes use this closed-beaked vocalisation when they're not aware I'm watching and there's no other magpie nearby leads me to think, further, that, like my human partner, they're inclined to talk to themselves, though it may well be there's a point to these vocalisations (like the whip bird's 'talking' to the leaf-litter, to stir up insects) that I've missed entirely.

As I wrote that last sentence, interrupting it, two of them, a male and a female, came to the door; or, rather, one to the door and one to the fence-post just outside the window, to let me know — with first a gentle, closed-beaked carolling (a musical bar, hardly longer than a second), then a sort of quiet chhew-pa-chhew — that they were there, and, when I'd opened the door and, seeing the other there too, given them a few peanuts, responded, once they'd eaten them, with a once-repeated, soft, single-note caw sound. Then, just before taking off, one of them did something I'd describe more as a closed-beaked grunt to the other, as if to say Okay? Ready to go?


Local dialects. If we need any proof that birds have dialects all we need do, I think, is check on-line for a bird-sound we're trying to identify. Most sites, for Australian bird-calls at least, will give one or two brief recordings of a bird's call — that of the grey shrike-thrush, say, or pied currawong — but, although you're pretty sure these are the birds you've been looking at, and that the sounds you're trying to identify have come from their beaks, these recorded calls, presented as the sounds of those birds, may not be the calls you are hearing.

It's happened, over and again, that a call I've tried, unsuccessfully, to identify by listening to such recordings — a distinct call, heard many times without a bird one's been able to attach to it — turns out, when at last one does see the bird it's coming from, to be the call of a bird one's known all along (a lowry, a whipbird, a wattlebird); it's just that no one seems to have recorded that particular call from that bird, i.e. that that call hasn't been designated as the call of that bird.

One obvious explanation is that birds have, not one, but a range of calls, and that birds of a particular species in one part of the country may have a different — overlapping, perhaps, but different — range of calls than birds of that same species in a different part of the country: that lowries in the Blue Mountains, for example, may have a slightly different range of calls from lowries in the Brindabellas or the Warrumbungles, or that the range of calls of rainbow lorikeets in Sydney differs from that of rainbow lorikeets in Melbourne.

We could call this the dialect option. But there's a further factor. I'm not sure it eliminates the dialect option — in fact I think it supports it — but it's a twist, a complication.

Many Australian birds mimic the calls of others. We all know the lyrebird is a superb mimic and will imitate the sounds of motor mowers, horses, trail bikes, beer-cans opening, etc. Some of us may even know that magpies have been found to mimic the calls of some 35 other species of birds (not that all magpies can mimic all 35: some can mimic these ones, some those...). But I've noticed, just here, in my territory, at least four other birds (butcher birds, mountain lowries, magpie larks, and Indian mynahs) mimicking the calls of other species, and have come to suspect at least three others (bower birds, whip birds, currawongs) to be doing the same. And if I can think of nine such mimicking species, there must, it seems to me, be many more out there, in this and other parts of the country. Which is only to say that, since every particular bird, or local group of a particular species, will have its own particular habitat, and since every particular habitat will have its own particular range of resident species of birds (and other species, for birds need not only imitate birds), then birds of a particular mimicking species in one part of the country may have a slightly different range of birds they imitate than birds of their species who live in a different part of the country.

An example. I heard, the other day, a magpie imitate, mid-sentence, the squawk of a white cockatoo. I wondered, of course, why he'd done so. He did it open-beaked, to the world, not closed-beaked, so I thought it was part of some communication, rather than, say, just practicing, or entertaining himself. The cockatoos had been squawking just a while before — there was still the occasional squawk about — so, it seemed to me, he might be commenting upon them to another magpie. Maybe, I thought, he was complaining about their noise; maybe he was saying No, let's not go there yet, let's wait until the cockatoos have gone, or something like that. The cockatoo sound, that is, might have been a reference to the cockatoos themselves, or it might have been being used to refer to something associated with cockatoos, like noise, or a crowding of the air, or whiteness, or difference itself.

Ditto, I'd suggest, for other sounds birds imitate. 'As I passed the car-port on the way to the writing room,' I wrote in early October last year, just as the first of our terrible bushfires broke out:

I caught sight of a magpie in its shadows. I stopped to give him a few peanuts and received a beautiful trill in greeting. No timidity, no fear, just familiarity, friendliness, or so it seemed and I'll take it that way. And then later, at 4.30, leaving to go up early to make dinner, a magpie again, I think the same one, outside the door, though more concerned with muttering to himself about something than with talking to me, and I heard, almost under his breath, as if he were working on getting it right, the sound of a distant siren.

I've since heard of other magpies, in different parts of the state, imitating sirens during this bushfire season, and read one commentator pointing to this as an ominous sign of climate change and likening such magpies to the canaries in a coalmine. Fair enough, and I'd add that, along with its almost apocalyptic sequence of disasters (fires, flood, contagion), this summer has been marked, as I've realised only in retrospect, by a set of strange, shriek-like calls I couldn't identify, but which may have been other birds (currawongs, koels) trying, like the magpie, to imitate sirens, there having been, almost daily later in those months, the sounds of sirens of various kinds — the Rural Fire Service, the fire brigade, police, ambulance — up and down the Great Western Highway two hundred metres away to the south of us.

Magpies are very territorial. They'll stay in the same area for years, won't forage nearly as far as some other birds will. It's possible those who come to my door have lived in these trees all their lives. I think it quite likely my siren-imitating friend has never actually been to the highway or seen the source of the sirens he's been hearing, and that it's possible, instead, that he thinks they're from a new bird he's now — just as I do — trying to identify.

But enough. Here's a further thought about my cockatoo-sounding friend. That, in imitating their squawk, he might have been trying to talk to them. Just as, in the early days, as I walked past the sheep on my way down to the cabin in the morning, I once (an embarrassing confession, but if it makes a point) used to baa at them in greeting. And (another thought) that, by the same token, the sound the magpies make when they come to my cabin door might, occasionally, be their attempt to mimic the sound that humans make. Gisela Kaplan, whom I heard interviewed the other day, spoke of a magpie she'd rescued, who'd learnt to talk to her. She walked past his enclosure one day, after years of his saying nothing, and he'd said I've got dinner for you.


A question. I've just watched a lone white cockatoo land on the top of a star-picket outside my bottom window and, having settled a moment, let out a loud squawk, followed by a set of three a few seconds later. Then he (or she) seemed to pause and to listen. So I did the same. Nothing. And he (she) squawked again. Again we both listened, and there it was, quite faint, obviously some distance off, an answering squawk. He/she paused again, nipped amongst his/her shoulder feathers — a nit there — then squawked again, listened, and, when the answer came again, took off, south-south-west.

My question is, was that just any cockatoo (general) answering any other cockatoo (general) — if so, since there are many white cockatoos around here, you'd expect he/she to get several answers — or was it one particular cockatoo who had been called to by and was answering another particular cockatoo whose voice he/she recognised?

And as if to provide me proof — the wonders of writing in situ! — a half hour later another white cockatoo has come to the mid-paddock water bowl (I'm watching him right now) and, while taking a sip, has heard (he's lifted his head) another calling from somewhere off to the west. If it were the any-cockatoo scenario above you might have expected him to have answered, but no, no answer. A small piece of evidence, I'd agree, but on the side of no, I don't recognise that voice, or perhaps no, I don't want to answer her.


For several years now, during the northern summer, I've watched the swallows in P. line up on the telephone wires at various times of the day and chatter, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for much longer. Mature birds, much of the time, but more and more often, as the summer wears on, it's actually a kind of crèche: three or four adults and a number of recently-fledged children, some of whom, but not all, might be their own. I imagine the parents take turns with crèche duties — it's evidently a co-operative crèche — and that lessons are going on. There's a huge amount to learn, after all, and in a hurry. They have only until late September, and then there's the massing, and the long flight south.

I use chatter deliberately. For a long time the sound they make up there on the wire seemed to me to be just bird-song, 'the sound that swallows make', but then one day I found myself watching, enthralled yet unnoticed, through the open shutters of the upstairs bathroom window past which, scarcely a metre away, another telephone wire ran, two swallows, side-by-side, talking together. That is, it seemed to me that, while one was chattering, the other was listening, and vice versa.

Swallow song, that's to say, was actually swallow talk. Hardly surprising, when you consider (say) the extraordinary migration these birds make each year, from Central Europe across to the Italian coast, over to Elba, down across Corsica and Sardinia, across the Mediterranean to Tunisia, and then down to the Central African Republic or, further, to the Cape of Good Hope, a journey of around 9000 kilometres which, a few months later, they repeat in the opposite direction. Or hold crèches. Hard to think they could do these things without communicating. Everything we know about them says the older generations teach the younger, and that there's one hell of a lot going on in a swallow's tiny brain. Unless, of course, you want to revert to instinct, that old too-hard basket we're used to cramming with such and whatever else we can't explain or rattles ever so slightly our sense of unassailable superiority.

Butcher Bird

A lot of rain yesterday and overnight — heavy whenever I woke to hear — and again this morning though it seems to be clearing. And windy, sometimes quite strong. The butcher bird I've been seeing about the place was on the front veranda rail at lunch time yesterday, bedraggled, complaining to herself for half an hour or so and I got some photographs through the window — rather shaky ones I'm afraid since I'm having to hold and operate the camera one-handed these days and my hand shakes a bit. Within the complaints I seemed to hear fragments of the morning song I've been trying without success to identify since October. One of the first birds I suspected was the butcher bird, since he/she seemed the only persistent newcomer around the place, but none of the recorded butcher bird calls available was the one I was looking for. I heard it (or rather them, the fragments) again late yesterday afternoon when she transferred her lament to the top rail of the back deck. Then this morning — still raining — I heard him/her, and saw, again on the front veranda rail, one clear, indisputable, whole instance of the song, so at last (a quiet celebration in/to myself: no one else would care) my mystery singer is identified. A gift, it seemed, and I was grateful enough for that, but then, suddenly, came another. She paused, as if some thought had interrupted her, and then uttered a simple, sad, three-note call, so softly that one might better describe it as the memory of a call, each note lower than the one it followed, the third not tailing off slightly, ark, ark, arrr ... the sound of a crow, passing a field away. Was she remembering a crow, or was she making a/her sound for sadness, a grey day full of rain? I admit that this is a rather human offering or interpretation, an anthropomorphism, but I defend it — staunchly, as it happens — because anthropomorphism does, so often, take us to the edge of an understanding we have not hitherto had, but leaves us there, of course, at that edge. It may have been sadness that that soft crow-call expressed in the mouth of that butcher bird, but it may also have been blackness, threat, admiration, or simply going through a repertoire of imitation much as lyrebirds are said to do. Or it may have been something utterly different, utterly new, at least to this human mind.