What a hoot: bird books not within cooee (SMH 8.6.09)

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Subject: What a hoot: bird books not within cooee (SMH 8.6.09)
From: "Tony Lawson" <>
Date: Mon, 8 Jun 2009 07:49:25 +1000

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, whichit".

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.

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