This is a bit disconcerting, considering the nature of our site, but until recently, the Bowerbird Collective hadn’t heard of us, we hadn’t heard of them, and most people hadn’t heard of these 53 birds who are about to go extinct. Ironically, the headlines that caught my mother’s eye all focused on Taylor Swift, as Forbes, NPR, Smithsonian and even Christian site The Good News Network remarked that the album had beaten Taylor Swift on the Australian charts. Even more ironically, the Swift Parrot is one of the birds. Why pick on poor Taylor? This album topped everything.
Now there’s a special edition with photographs; I’ve ordered two, one for myself and one for my mom for having discovery rights. It’s not just that I want to do something to help endangered species (one out of six Australian birds is endangered, a number exacerbated by the wildfires of 2019), or that I love field recordings, but that these are particularly well-presented and unique. The sounds were collected over a span of 36 years by David Stewart, who often researched for weeks, hiked for miles and waited for hours just to get a sonic snippet. Without him, some of these sounds might have been lost in time. Sadly, even intervention will not be enough to save all these species.
For sonic comparison, two other projects come to mind: Flaming Pines’ Birds of a Feather series, curated by Kate Carr; and Melting Landscapes from the Institute of Landscape Architecture, both included on our chart of The Best Field Recording & Soundscape Albums of the Decade. All three share a concern for disappearing habitats; the third makes the connection to geography.
The collection begins with an overture: a soundscape that incorporates an entire biophany. After this, 53 individual species are showcased. We are used to loving birds by sight, which makes this project particularly unique as we are presented with songs alone. Just as an album track or single may make one interested in the rest of the set, these snippets make one interested in the species as a whole. We first met the bowerbird in Stéphane Marin’s Oceanian PhoNographic Mornings; often recognized for its plumage, the golden variety (pictured above) is more surprising for producing a sound that seems to come from an industrial park, while the Satin branch sounds like an angry bee. The Black-eared Miner can reproduce a horse’s whinny, while a group of South-Eastern Red-tailed Black Cockatoos comes across like a barrage of children’s squeaky toys. The male Christmas Island Frigatebird has a huge red gulat that expands like a balloon to attract females (insert joke here). The cry, however, is circus-like. Its neighbor, the Christmas Island Imperial-Pigeon, sounds like a Halloween ghost. My personal favorite: the Australasian Bittern, which hides at night but fittingly emits a low foghorn rumble. For those who are curious, Taylor Swift would have a hard time singing as high as the Swift Parrot.
The joy is finding so many cries included in a single set. The sorrow is that these are Songs of Disappearance. All proceeds benefit BirdLife Australia, so if you’d ever like to hear these songs again ~ perhaps even in person, in a thriving colony ~ please buy one of these wonderful CDs. (Richard Allen)