Other people’s words about … birdcalls
A bird calls with a sound like a pot being scraped,
and the moist air is cool on our skin.
from ‘The Collaborator‘
by Margaret Leroy
I love the way that worlds sometimes collide in the space of a few words. What kind of bird is Margaret Leroy describing here? I’m not sure: the characters in her book live on the Channel Islands during the Occupation in World War II — which is a long way from Australia.
And yet when I read her phrase, I thought instantly of our native red wattlebirds.
Australian birds are known for their startlingly loud calls. In fact, biologist Tim Low has devoted a whole book to this theme. In Where Song Began, he proposes that Australian plants produce such an abundance of nectar that some birds — honeyeaters in particular, including wattlebirds — have evolved with strong aggressive tendencies, which enable them to fight over and defend their sources of nectar. Their loud, harsh calls are a part of that aggression. (You can find a brief summary of this argument here.)
I have struggled for years to come up with words to describe the calls that red wattlebirds make. They are a mixture of chuckles, coughs, clicks, screeches, rattles, squawks and whistles: you can hear a sample on the website Birds in Backyards, whichprovides a link to a recording on this factsheet. (Click on ‘Top 40 Bird Songs’ at the top of the factsheet, and then click on the ‘Soundfile’ for the red wattlebird, which is the fourteenth bird on the list. But turn your volume up first. Wattlebirds are very noisy.)
The recording misses something, though, as do my words. Neither effort really conveys the sound of the wattlebird’s call accurately: somehow, Margaret Leroy’s words come closer.
Serendipity, perhaps? Now, whenever I hear a wattlebird call, I will think of these words.