The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //myweb.tiscali.co.uk/njpphotography/

Listening to birds in Australia

I’ve been very interested to hear about the experiences of changing bird sounds described by people moving between different parts of the world. Some of the most striking examples have come from people moving between the UK and Australia, countries with very different birds.

This very striking example is from Eugen Beer:

We have been here in Sydney, Australia for just over six months and soon discovered that, to the British ear, the Australian birdsong is really quite disruptive. We have heard of people emigrating BACK to the UK because of the ‘ugly’ birdsong here. In a nutshell I would describe the sub-conscious effect of ‘birdsong’ here as being to raise people’s tension. It is a series of screeches or other worldly sounds. In the UK you wake to the blackbird, sparrow, or if you are lucky – thrush. Gentle, harmonious songs that usher in the day to come. Here the birds literally crash into your consciousness… I honestly believe that if you hooked somebody up and exposed them to British birdsong and then Sydney birdsong you would see the latter send the pulse racing.

Gill Rice writes:

In 1968 I emigrated to Australia (I was 19 at the time). I had been brought up on a farm in Somerset, and there was an old apple orchard outside of my bedroom window. The dawn chorus was so very special to me, that when I arrived in Australia I missed the sound terribly. My mother made a tape of the chorus for me and sent it to me to play so I did not feel so home sick!

A correspondent living in Sydney comments:

I lived in the UK for my first 40 years. I now live in Sydney, Australia. I used to love the sound of English birdsong – particularly blackbirds. I still associate the sound with English Spring and Summer days. It was one of the few things I really missed when I arrived here among the larger squarkier birds of Sydney… Over the last year I have noticed that I now have a growing similar affection for the sound of Australian Magpies. Their warbling song is very distinctive and quite unlike any other bird I’ve heard. To start with it was a curiosity and, having been whacked on the back of the head by an aggressive nesting magpie (and they are BIG), I regarded them with suspicion! But now, after many sunny days spent with a sound track from the magpies I realise that they have virtually supplanted blackbirds in my affections. I now hear more in the song – it *feels* as if the magpies have become more musically inventive; in reality I think I have become more attuned to their music and the variations in their song.

Simon Eassom from Melbourne was also fascinated by Australian birds:

My family moved to Australia from a county village in England 2 years ago. We loved the native birds in our garden in the UK and thought we’d miss them. But, we’re now in a 1.5 acre bush idyll in the suburban fringes of Melbourne and marvel everyday at the bird life. We have almost resident cockatoos, rosellas, lorakeets, galahs, parrots, and kookaburras that come to us from 5.30am for breakfast and stay through to 7.30pm after supper. We spend more on bird feed than we do on our two dogs (including feeding the kookaburra with raw meat which we don’t even grant the dogs). Anyway, I find their vocalisations much more interesting than I ever found birdsong in the UK. The screeching and squarking of the cockatoos is fascinating, as is the call of the kookaburra. I can’t resist imitating them and trying to communicate. I drive my family nuts with my kookaburra recitals. However, and here’s the main point of interest I guess, the birds that fascinate me most are the magpies and butcher birds. They are nasty bullies and can be quite aggressive and vicious towards people. But, they communicate in the most fascinating sounds. They can sound like a fax machine at one moment and on old “trim” phone at another. Yet it’s clear that the changing tones and pitch are a vocabulary. Their song is almost digital in nature. It isn’t a twittering sound or the parrot-family sound of the cockatoos etc. Neither is it a whistle. It’s quite extraordinary. More than any other bird I’ve listened to or observed, the magpies make me feel like wanting to talk to them despite my general disdain for them as visitors to our garden. They are the earliest bird to begin singing in the morning and probably the most loquacious. The young have a very different pitch to the adults and the interactions make it much easier to pick the magpies out from amongst the crowd. In the UK there would be a general cacophony of bird song every morning with it being very difficult to distinguish individual species, yet alone individual birds. Here, that’s all changed and I’ve become an avid bird listener.

Here are some experiences of Australians who have moved to the UK, the first from Adam Schembri in London:

As an Australian living in London, bird song contributes strongly to my sense of place. I have recordings of some Australian birds in my iTunes collection that I listen to sometimes to remind me of home: cockatoos, whipbirds, currawongs and bellbirds are particularly evocative for me. I always say to my partner that I want to retire in a house where I can hear bellbirds. But I also have some British birds that I like in my collection, particularly the blackbird and the stonechat. I love the fact that the blackbird’s call is often in the background in many different parts of the UK, so I associate it strongly with living here, and have gotten quite disoriented in Melbourne in Australia where blackbirds also live.

This particularly evocative contribution is from Lou Horton from Devon:

Birdsong becomes so much a part of the aural environment it becomes nearly invisible – until it changes. I came to the UK as a teenager having grown up in Australia. Two things struck me straight away: both the stars and the birds were wrong. More than anything else, these two things made me feel alien.

Nearly thirty years later I came across Australian birdsong on the internet. A short burst of currawong song brought back an intense feeling of being a child again in Sydney. I could almost smell the air and feel the texture of my primary school uniform. It’s like a trigger to a sense of being, rather than a memory of doing.

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