Article, images and sound files by Julie O’Connor, senior conservation partnerships officer, Sunshine Coast Council
When early European colonists arrived in Australia they often lamented the lack of birdsong in the Australian landscape. Even as late as 1854 naturalist, Thomas Harvey, noted that there were “a few whistlers, many screamers, screechers and yelpers, but no songsters among the birds here.” Nowhere it seemed were the vocal equivalents of the familiar thrushes, nightingales and blackbirds they had left behind.
Over time, however, the cultural ache for the familiar began to fade, and in its stead grew an appreciation for the exquisite tones of some of Australia’s best songsters, including those of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis). In 1932, the Sydney Morning Herald published an ode to the butcherbird penned by George Goodman:
…but with the rosy flush of day new-born, comes ringing clear, thy most melodious song. Sweet alto of the feathered minstrel throng.
Grave, dignified, thou hast no colours gay to charm the eye, that lesser birds adorn;
the loveliness is in thy warbling lay that echoes through the trees.
Like elfin horn it sounds triumphant, jubilant and free.
And sets the note for nature’s melody.
That “most melodious song” Goodman refers to is learned in butcherbirds in much the same way as you or I would learn a song – through practicing, listening to the accuracy of our notes and adjusting where necessary. An example of the early stages of song learning can be heard in this recording of a juvenile pied butcherbird practicing its notes juvenile pied butcherbird learning song. The incremental improvement in song rendition can be heard in the subadult bird adolescent pPied butcherbird practicing song. By the time the pied butcherbird has reached adulthood it has not only perfected its own song but also incorporates some impressive mimicry. In this sound file adult pied butcherbird singing in the rain incorporating mimicry of other species, a pied butcherbird has included the vocals of the eastern koel, laughing kookaburra, noisy miner, rainbow lorikeet, local pet African lovebirds and sun conure, and even a dog barking.
Interestingly, humans may not be the only animals to enjoy the beautiful singing of the pied butcherbird. Some research suggests that in addition to the biological role of a male songbird’s vocals, they may sing for the sheer enjoyment of hearing their own voice. Perhaps a little like us singing in the shower, although my own shower vocals seem to attract a completely unreasonable amount of household objection. Certainly the pied butcherbird who runs through his repertoire under the dry eaves of my house when it is raining appears to be in a blissful world of his own, but that may be just my interpretation. Another more functional explanation is that time spent by a male perfecting his vocal prowess may pay off when it comes to mate selection. It has been suggested that an intricate and meticulously executed song may signal to the female that his superior learning skills might also be applied to other tasks more directly related to survival, such as food provision, territory defence and predator avoidance.
If you live in an urban area you may have noticed that butcherbirds will happily share territories with noisy miners, who will usually not tolerate most other birds in their heavily defended territories. So why do quite aggressive miners accept a larger bird that sometimes includes baby birds in its diet? Tim Low suggests it may be a mutually beneficial arrangement where miners drive out birds who exploit the same resources as butcherbirds and, for their part, butcherbirds provide additional mobbing support with their longer beaks and willingness to physically engage with an intruder. In my own garden I have witnessed the relentless harassment of a young ringtail possum who ventured from the safety of its drey during daylight hours. The alarm calls of the first miner to spot the unfortunate little animal instantly summoned other miners, a family of pied butcherbirds and a number of blue-faced honeyeaters, all of whom tormented the possum until it was able to withdraw to the safety of its drey again.
The butcherbird’s use of the urban landscape extends beyond just the sharing of space with humans. Like their magpie cousins, butcherbirds will also happily incorporate our scraps and artefacts into their nests if they find it stronger or more versatile than traditional nesting material. For example, the pieces of heavy wire in the attached photograph were found woven into a pied butcherbird nest that was recently dislodged from a tree.
So, despite the occasional thuggery and theft, if you have ever been captured by the magical sound of the pied butcherbird in the urban soundscape be assured you are in good company. French composer, François-Bernard Mâche, wrote of this little Aussie songster:
…of course viewing culture as something which originates in a natural function, and imagining that it turned out to bring a new end beyond pure survival, may look heretical both to a large majority of biologists and to the many musicians as well…I can only say, as a composer, that Cracticus nigrogularis, the pied butcherbird, is a kind of colleague.
Ackerman, Jennifer. 2016. The Genius of Birds. Scribe Publications
Low, Tim. 2014. Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world. Penguin Australia
Taylor, Hollis. 2008. Decoding the song of the pied butcherbird: An initial survey
Transcultural Music Review 12(2008): 1-30
Taylor, Hollis. 2012. Anecdote and Anthropomorphism: Writing the Australian pied butcherbird. Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology Vol. 1, 2011/2012.