Songs of Disappearance

An album consisting entirely of birdsong has debuted towards the top of Australia’s ARIA chart, beating Mariah Carey, Michael Buble and Abba to get to No. 5 one week after its release.

Songs Of Disappearance, a collaboration between multimedia duo Bowerbird Collective and David Stewart, who has been recording the sounds of Australian birds for over four decades, features the calls and songs of 53 threatened species.

With all proceeds donated to BirdLife Australia, it has sold just over 2,000 units, around 1,500 of them in presale (which is, it must be said, a far cry from the kind of numbers trequired to enter the charts before the streaming era).

The project was the result of a conversation between Bowerbird Collective’s Anthony Albrecht, a PhD student at Charles Darwin University, and his supervisor Stephen Garnett, the author of the recently updated Action Plan For Australian Birds, which found that one in six Australian birds are now threatened with extinction.

“He asked whether the Bowerbird Collective could do anything to help promote [the Action Plan], and it was immediately obvious to me what we needed to do,” Albrecht said. “I’m really keen to understand whether environmental art such as this project can have an impact on attitudes and behaviour.”

Albrecht’s collaborator and Bowerbird Collective co-founder, violinist Simone Slattery, arranged a musical collage of the 53 species for the opening track of Songs Of Disappearance. The rest of the album’s tracks are of Stewart’s recordings in isolation.

“I listened to the birds [as recorded by Stewart] one after the other and I found it incredibly moving,” Slattery said. “I kept listening until I could feel a structure coming to me, like a quirky dawn chorus.

“Some of these sounds will shock listeners because they’re extremely percussive, they’re not melodious at all. They’re clicks, they’re rattles, they’re squawks and deep bass notes.”

The collage ends with the morse code-like song of the Night Parrot, the enigmatic species whose call was entirely unknown to science until 2013.

Another song featured is that of the Regent Honeyeater, which is now so rare that it is literally losing its own voice out of loneliness – a story that propelled it to its own top 10 placing in this year’s Guardian Australia Bird of the Year poll.

“It’s a far more visceral way of processing this idea that these birds might disappear,” said Sean Dooley, national public affairs manager for BirdLife Australia.

Dooley cheerfully invoked the catchphrase of Ian “Molly” Meldrum, suggesting Australian record buyers “do yourselves [and Australian birds] a favour”.

Garnett said “it’s only appropriate that the album charts”.

“There’s a sense of grief that we’re losing something deeply valuable, and bird calls are so evocative.”

He said that “conserving threatened species is an emotional act. It’s much more than about biology. It’s about a much deeper attachment to our environment, and this is a way of reaching that in a way that words on paper don’t.”

Garnett’s Action Plan has documented the increasing impact of fire and global heating on Australian birds. Stewart highlighted another issue: the catastrophic decline of insects, a view supported by the listing of the previously abundant Bogong Moth as endangered.

“All our insectivores are in decline,” he said. “That’s where a big part of our problem lies. You’ve got climate change, plus the insecticides that are being pumped out everywhere.”

Garnett said that may be a focus of the next Action Plan, which is updated each decade.

“The last Action Plan didn’t have nearly as much stuff on climate change about it, because we didn’t have the evidence,” he said. “This one doesn’t have much on insect declines, because at this stage we don’t have the evidence.

“In the Wet Tropics, we don’t really know yet how climate change is affecting the birds – is it affecting them directly; is it killing their food; is it enabling their competitors from the lowlands as they are able to go higher up the mountains, or a combination of those things.

“It’s the same in the arid zone. When you get the silence that comes after a heatwave, is it because the insects have gone and therefore the birds starve, or is it because the birds themselves have been killed directly? We don’t know yet.”

First published in the Guardian, 10 December 2021

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