Thursday, February 14, 2008

The living tape recorder birds of Dorrigo

Click for more on my bioregion
I'd like to tell a fascinating tale about birds, and mimicry. The Bellinger River Valley, my home, is between the Dorrigo Plateau and the Pacific Ocean. It is the shortest coastal valley in the State of New South Wales, or so I believe.

Around Dorrigo, which is about half an hour's drive from Bellingen township, live some very remarkable birds, and these birds have been memorialized in a ceramic mural at the entrance to 2BBB-FM, the district's volunteer-run, mud-brick, community radio station. Below is my rather pathetic attempt at a composite photo of it (click it to enlarge).

The middle panel contains a window that allows visitors to look directly from the veranda into the broadcasting studio, and allows studio interviewees, as I was yesterday, to see visitors glancing or peering in. It's a great work of art by Pru Iggulden of Bellingen.

The mural's incredible story
The mural tells a wonderful tale of these local birds, which are fantastic mimics of sounds. I copy this paragraph below, directly from the Wikipedia article on Australia's lyrebird:

"One researcher, Sydney Curtis, has recorded flute-like lyrebird calls in the vicinity of the New England National Park. Similarly, in 1969, a park ranger, Neville Fenton, recorded a lyrebird song, which resembled flute sounds, in the New England National Park, near Dorrigo in northern coastal New South Wales. After much detective work by Fenton, it was discovered that in the 1930s, a flute player living on a farm adjoining the park used to play tunes near his pet lyrebird. The lyrebird adopted the tunes into his repertoire, and retained them after release into the park. Neville Fenton forwarded a tape of his recording to Norman Robinson. Because a lyrebird is able to carry two tunes at the same time, Robinson filtered out one of the tunes and put it on the phonograph for the purposes of analysis. The song represents a modified version of two popular tunes in the 1930s: 'The Keel Row' and 'Mosquito's Dance'. Musicologist David Rothenberg has endorsed this information."

Ms Iggulden's mural shows the boy who played the tunes on his flute, then the lyrebirds passing it to each other down the generations, then the researcher tape-recording the song from a modern bird, decades after it was first learned by its ancestor, that one bird in the 1930s.

I have had for more than 20 years a cassette tape recording (which I was given by the man who recorded it, Christian missionary Paul White, known in Australia as 'the Jungle Doctor'), of the Dorrigo lyrebirds singing their song (which I thought was called 'The Mosquito Reel'). I would love to digitize it, but don't know how and have no suitable equipment (not even a cassette player).

Below is a recommended David Attenborough clip on the lyrebird (Feedblitz subscribers to this post from Wilson's Blogmanac need to click the post headline to see the video):

The lyrebird appears on the reverse of Australia's ten-cent coin. How often do we even notice? I hope that every time I see a ten-cent coin, I will bring to mind the fact that the precious lyrebird innocently mimics the sound of the chainsaws that are destroying its habitat and might lead to its extinction.

Two things to add: (1) the lyrebird gets his name from his magnificent tail, which resembles a lyre; (2) the kookaburra, mentioned in Attenborough's clip, is an Australian bird whose laughter shows up in Hollywood movies, such as Tarzan and other jungle movies. Two days ago I heard a kookaburra in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, an old Bogart movie set in Mexico. Grrr!!! BTW, it's just called kookaburra, with the first syllable rhyming with 'book', and it's not known as 'the laughing kookaburra', as some overseas websites assert. I like the name of my totem to be respected :).


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a really grrreat post, Pip. I especially enjoyed listening to the YouTube video of the Lyre bird. It adds a new dimension to the often coined phrase, " Never expect originality from an echo."

Thanks for today's candy, kiddo. You're the bomb!

10:01 AM  
Blogger Pip said...

Many thanx, Saboma. It's quite a bird, and we must protect its habitat.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Pip, you did it again. Honestly not sure how I used to start my winter-england days without these ripples of inspiration!
And isn't David Atenborough one of our most insightful national treasures?!
Have a goodday/night

7:18 PM  
Blogger Pip said...

:: blush ::

Thanks, Steve. Yes, Attenborough is a gem.

8:53 PM  

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