restricted access 2. Songbird Studies
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19 C H A P T E R 2 Songbird Studies Ayr Tourist Information Bureau, North Queensland, 5 October 2006: “Good morning. I’m looking for a town map and information on local caravan parks.” “Here you go. There’re two in town.” “Thanks—and by the way, have you heard of the pied butcherbird?” “Yeah-naaah, you’d never find ’em here.” In the two minutes it takes me to study the map, he goes outside and returns to proudly report that he’s found a pair. I’m dubious. He works at this park and thinks he knows what these birds look like. How could he have missed them before? He directs me down a path—and yes, they are pied butcherbirds. I record several duets. This time of year, nighttime fires roar through the fields. Set to kill dry sugarcane leaves, the fires also rid fields of rats and venomous snakes before hand harvesting begins. At 4:00 am I record a bird at the golf course whotrumpetsoutanearthlyyetsublimeflourish.Acrosstheroad,furious orange flames dance in the inky sky above a white-hot canefield. Afterward , I return to the caravan park to transfer and annotate the audio files, and then it’s time to quickly pack up and move on. Myfieldtripsarebittersweet.WhenIdriveforhours,especiallyifIpass occasionalpiedbutcherbirdsonautilitywireorinadeadtree,Iinevitably Competent authorities have proposed to divide the world, biologically , into two parts—Australia and the rest of the world, and they have considered Australia the more interesting part. —John Albert Leach, An Australian Bird Book (1911) 20 is birdsong music? registeratwingeofdisappointmentatnothearinganddocumentingthose birds’ songs. This morning, the trip lurches between hurry up and wait due to flood damage and consequent road repairs. At one point while I’m stopped in traffic, a bored lineman slouches on a milk crate tossing stones into a tin can. When I finally arrive at my destination and check in, again I ask, “By the way, do you know if there are any pied butcherbirds here?” “We’vegotheapsofbirdshere.Heaps!Wefeedthelorikeetseveryafternoon at four; then at night the bettongs come to clean up the leftovers— and there’s wine tasting at five-thirty and a barbie [BBQ] at six . . .” “Great—but the pied butcherbird?” “The what?” “The pied but-cher-bird.” “I don’t know ’em.” (I admit I take it a bit personally when locals do not know my star, but I try not to let on.) “Thief!” is handwritten at the bottom of a wanted poster next to the cashregister.Themugshot,photocopiedfromafieldguide,showsaglossy blue-black bird with violet-blue eyes. It’s a satin bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus). “What’s the story with him?” I ask. “Oh, you’re a bird lady! Maybe you can help. He stole the tow pins from a truck last week and left the people stranded for three days until they could get another set. And before that, he took the keys for a motorhome. We’d like to know where he keeps his stash.” Named for the architecturally complex and varied stick structures that they build and decorate, bowerbirds live in Australia and Papua New Guinea. They decorate their wickerwork-like bowers and immediate surroundings , known as display courts, with fruits, berries, nuts, flowers, seedpods,feathers,leaves,pebbles,andshells.Othernaturalobjectsmight include fungi, ferns, tiny skulls, sloughed snakeskin, and charcoal. Their mise-en-scène may also contain human ready-mades like flip tops, rifle shell casings, aluminum foil, bolts, and clothespins. Broken glass and bottle caps are especially popular, as are drinking straws, marbles, and plastic toys. Keys have reportedly been pinched straight from the ignition of a parked car. Birds assemble hundreds or even thousands of such items. Australia’s ten bowerbird species exhibit disparate color preferences. Satin bowerbirds favor blue, with a secondary preference for yellow, while Songbird Studies 21 great (Chlamydera nuchali), western (Chlamydera guttata), and spotted (Chlamydera maculata) bowerbirds choose white and grey objects, sometimes adding green and red into the mix. Future-oriented spotted bowerbirds cultivate a nonfood item, a green fruit (Solanum ellipticum) that they eventually harvest to decorate their court.1 Bowerbird preferences run to more than tint: shape, size, and texture, aswellassaturationandsheen,mayallfactorintothechoicesabirdmakes whenassemblinghiscollection.Birdspainttheparallelstickwallsoftheir U-shaped avenue bower with a combination of saliva and natural materials ,whichtheyapplywiththeirbeak,astick,orapieceofbark.2Whendisplaying to the female, a male will often race about the bower, holding and waving one of his collectibles. Males accumulate decorations as a kind of wealth, and we can speculate that enjoyment is involved, as they will perform decoration and courtship behavior in the absence of...


Subject Headings

  • Birdsongs -- Australia.
  • Butcherbirds -- Behavior -- Australia.
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