Recently I visited Tokyo for the first time and was immediately struck by the Bird calls I would hear at each train station. In an urban conglomeration of 37 million people, it was a pleasant surprise to think birds were thriving. It wasn’t until I heard the distinctive two-note call of a cuckoo that I became suspicious.
It was then that I discovered that they piped in bird sounds to help visually impaired people navigate around the extremely busy stations. In the vast megapolis itself there were very few birds. With the lack of rubbish on the streets, there were hardly even any pigeons or crows compared with Australian cities.
The lack of genuine background bird noise began to unnerve me. Several recent studies have shown how important birdsong can be for our physical and mental health. Having grown up with the sounds of magpies caroling and wattlebirds squawking, the most foreign aspect of Japan for me was not the language, culture or food, but the avian silence.
This was brought home when I recorded a greater number of bird species when transferring between the international and domestic terminals at Brisbane airport on returning home than I would for an entire day in Tokyo. And boy, were they loud – rainbow lorikeets, noisy miners and figbirds all yammering away. They may have been “songless bright birds” to Adam Lindsay Gordon and his colonial mates, but the inner joy this Aussie soundtrack brings is incalculable.
The Japanese seem to get around this in typically efficient fashion by compartmentalising nature through a series of stunning parks and forests. That forest bathing has become so popular is not surprising. However, here in Australia, we are still fortunate enough to have substantial – if dwindling – slices of nature, even in our largest cities.
As the phenomenal response to the 2023 Australian bird of the year poll demonstrates, the opportunity to connect with birds on a daily basis has not been denied us quite yet. When you look at the birds that made it through to the Top 10, it was not so much the exotic-looking and bizarre birds but those that are encountered in the places where we live. Even the two most endangered – Carnaby’s black-cockatoo and swift parrot – can be found on the outskirts of our capital cities, such as Perth, where Carnaby’s is a familiar site, and Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, where swift parrots will feed on flowering street trees. Even the Gouldian finch of the tropical savannas has recently been making an appearance on the outskirts of Darwin at a site under threat of being cleared for housing development.
Australians clearly connect with the birds that they share their neighbourhoods with. As much as the bird of the year vote is a bit of fun, there’s something uplifting about the celebration of the birds we all know. As the poll closes, many are wondering how to get their next fun bird fix.
Fortunately, there is a way. Starting on 16 October is the 10th edition of the Aussie Bird Count, a citizen science event initiated by BirdLife Australia. Each October, close to 100,000 people provide us with a snapshot of the birds they see in the places where they spend their days – the back yard, the local park, pond, beach or workplace. Each of the 20-minute surveys entered in the app is a pixel that allows us to build a clearer picture of how our most common birds are faring.
Now that we are approaching 10 years, we are starting to see some trends emerge. Confirming other research by BirdLife Australia’s Urban Birds Program and other research institutions the Aussie Bird Count results show that as with their human counterparts, competition for urban real estate is brutal, leaving a few highly successful winners and an increase in the proportion of those facing homelessness. Larger, more aggressive birds such as rainbow lorikeets, noisy miners, ravens, crows, magpies and butcherbirds are all thriving. Smaller, once common bush birds such as silvereyes and willie wagtails are in decline.
We wouldn’t necessarily know that these are the trends facing our common birds without the breadth of citizen science coverage that something like the Aussie Bird Count can provide. You can’t solve a problem you don’t know you have. Gaining as clear a picture as possible, thanks to the efforts of those who are just out doing what they love in watching birds, means that we can develop strategies to plan our cities and manage our urban landscapes. And that gives us the best possible chance to continue to be surrounded by real birdsong, to avoid having to resort to a muzak version to be played through public loudspeakers.
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