The second saddest sound I have ever heard is the song from the last Kaua’i ‘ō’ō.
This somber Hawaiian songbird with a name quite appropriately pronounced like you made a stupid mistake, wasn’t exactly a gorgeous bird, its call isn’t the most musical. However, the sound of the last male singing in the calm of Kauai’s mountain forests to attract a female is heartbreaking as no bird has ever responded.
We tend to think of extinction as a creature no longer occupying its physical space in the world, but for birds in particular, extinction is as much about the silence that crosses the landscape, another song lost in the soundtrack of the planet.
The saddest sound I have ever heard was also the recording of a bird song. An Australian, the Regent Honeyeater. This time it was played from my own tape recorder almost exactly 19 years ago this week. I was in the Capertee Valley, just a few hours west of Sydney, trying to find a Regent Honeyeater as part of my quest to see as many Australian bird species as possible in a year. I had scoured the country, finding rare birds in the most remote places, but the Regent Honeyeater had eluded me on eight previous attempts.
It shouldn’t have been that difficult.
Less than a century ago, Regent Honeyeater were a common woodland bird, seen in “immense” numbers even in our largest cities. John Gould found them nesting in the middle of Adelaide in the 1840s. Prominent ornithologist HL White, whose nephew Patrick White described as “the only white uncle I loved”, reported roaming the bush in the ‘Upper Hunter in 1909 and heard’ their particular notes all day ‘. The Bendigo Field Naturalists’ Club noted that they were sometimes “one of the most abundant honeyeater” in the trees of the streets of Bendigo until the early 1950s.
In some ways, Regent Honeyeater are Australia’s homing pigeon. Where once they roamed in vast herds, today the notes of the Regent Honeyeater no longer resonate in the landscape over which they once ruled. Their population has been dramatically reduced by the historic clearing of mature, productive forests containing massive eucalyptus trees that produced an abundance of the nectar they depended on for food.
Yet even the few remaining vital woodlots continue to be destroyed. The relaxation of laws on clearing private land, including along fences in New South Wales, will hit hard, as will ongoing proposals that will destroy important remaining nesting sites for birds in the woods of Tomalpin in the Hunter Valley and in the Burragorang Valley which will be flooded as part of the proposal to raise the levels of the Warragamba Dam.
We now have perhaps less than 350 in the wild, and that may be an optimistic estimate.
Yet not only are there fewer birds to be heard, but the actual songs of the remaining Regent Honeyeater themselves are diminishing. Young regent male Honeyeater learn their song repertoire in the first year of life from more mature male birds. In the next breeding season, they use their song to establish territories and attract potential mates. Due to the small number of Regent Honeyeater in the landscape, the exposure of young birds to the complexity of the species’ song is greatly reduced, causing the songs they learn to become less complex over time.
What is even more disturbing is that 12% of the Regents are so devoid of companionship that they have resorted to mimicking the calls of other species such as small wattlebirds. This has ongoing implications for the recovery of the species, as regent honey-suckers don’t find these simplified love songs nearly as appealing, which can impact nesting success. To counter this, Taronga Zoo, which runs the Regent Honeyeater’s captive breeding program, has started playing the older and more complex recordings to young birds in an attempt to teach them to look more like a Regent Honeyeater. so that when released. in nature, they will be able to attract a partner with a traditional love song.
Eventually, I managed to track down a lone regent honeyeater. It was beautiful, the yellow of its wings and tail shone brightly in the rays of the setting sun. After he flew away, I played the recording I had of his song. It is reminiscent of that of the Kaua’i ‘ō’ō – perhaps a little harsher, with more elaborate phrasing but dripping in a similar melancholy tone. Maybe it was exhaustion from digging through the heat since 5.30am. Perhaps it was pure relief to finally find a bird that was still considered moderately common in the 1970s. But as it bounced unanswered off the sandstone walls of the valley, I found myself crying, struck that it was a sound that could soon only be heard in reproductions.
This is why I have supported BirdLife Australia and its Regent Honeyeater Recovery Team partners in their efforts to save the species. That’s why I can’t stand to see the glorious Regent Honeyeater “voted off the island” in this year’s Bird of the Year poll.