WHY can't those wretched field guides to Australian birds get it right? Sure,
these books are terrific on the breeding habits, diets, social lives and
seasonal wanderings of our birds.
But their limitations are laid bare when some mystery bird whizzes past high
up in the treetops. You thumb excitedly through the pictures in your guide and
decide that it looked a lot like, say, the lesser variegated swamp furgler.
Yet it's no use at all to be told that the unmistakeable identifier of this
species is "a pale band of underwing covert feathers with a slight rufous
tinge". Get real. Who can see that?
No, unless a thumping big emu poses obligingly nearby, the identifier most
people can confidently use is the bird's voice.
Yet it is a joke the way the many wondrous calls, songs, trills, warbles and
hoots of our local birds are described. To be told to listen for
"kwipz-t-flurwokit" is ridiculous.
I preferred Peter Carey's approach when he described the magpie's liquid
fluted melody as "like an angel gargling in a crystal vase". The New Zealand
poet Denis Glover had a pretty good go at the magpie, too, with his famous
"quardle ardle oodle ardle wardle doodle".
See? It's all very well asserting that one of the mudlark's many intriguing
calls sounds like "qwoo-zik-wheeik", but I hear "Who's this freak?". And, damn
it, its alarm call is not treee-treee: if so, why do we call it a peewee?
And what about that feisty little fidget, the willy wagtail? One book tells
me it has a pleasant musical chatter, "whichity-wheit, whitch-i-wheit,
Whichetty what? No way: the one frequenting our garden sounds like an
old-time movie telegram delivery boy searching restlessly through a hotel lobby
and calling for "Mister Richardson. Mister Winchester."
We've got an Indian myna that seems to have been raised in a shopping centre
car park and spends half its day calling "retail-retail-retail" and
impersonating car alarms.
There's a pied butcherbird involved in a Colombian cocaine smuggling racket:
a lilting "Bogota, Bogota" is soon followed by a lyrical "Off I go, with my
suitcase in my hand."
Not to mention the time-conscious wattlebird demanding we "Stop the
clock."Anyway, the point is made: we need a proper field guide to Aussie
birdsong because the present lot are certainly nothing to crow about.