How A Collection Of Threatened Bird Calls Swept The Australian Album Charts : Short Wave (2022)

EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: ...From NPR.

Hey, Short Wavers. It's Emily Kwong. So back in December 2021, the music sales chart in Australia was pretty predictable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY ON ME")

ADELE: (Singing) Go easy on me, baby...

KWONG: Adele's album, "30," was No. 1 - no surprises there - followed by Ed Sheeran's album, "Equals."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD HABITS")

ED SHEERAN: (Singing) My bad habits lead to wide eyes, stare into space...

KWONG: But by mid-month, there was an upset - a whole new sound flew to No. 3, surpassing none other than Taylor Swift.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED (TAYLOR'S VERSION)")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Loving him was red.

KWONG: You could call "Songs Of Disappearance" a concept album, and the artists have been fine-tuning their craft for millions of years. This album consists entirely of Australian bird songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUSTRALIAN BIRD CALLS)

ANTHONY ALBRECHT: There's just some absolutely incredible sounds being made by threatened Australian birds, and they need to be heard.

KWONG: Anthony Albrecht was a co-producer on the album, which was released by BirdLife Australia and The Bowerbird Collective, an organization that connects people to conservation issues through art.

ALBRECHT: Simone Slattery, my co-founder and I - we're actually musicians. Being musicians, I guess we love to listen to things, and one of the most awesome things about being Australian is our soundscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUSTRALIAN BIRD CALLS)

ALBRECHT: And whenever we've traveled or lived overseas, it's the thing we missed the most about this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUSTRALIAN BIRD CALLS)

KWONG: So today, on the wings of songbird, we travel to Australia with Anthony Albrecht. He brings the songs, we bring the science facts, and together - Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! style - we shine a spotlight on why these songs are disappearing.

I'm Emily Kwong, and you are listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science quiz show from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUSTRALIAN BIRD CALLS)

KWONG: So, Anthony, the album that you ended up putting together - this chart-climber - is called "Songs Of Disappearance." It's a collection of the songs of 53 threatened Australian bird species. We're going to listen to some of them. But before we do, where did these songs come from? How were they recorded?

ALBRECHT: So the recordings are made, for the most part, by one amazing Australian nature recordist. His name is David Stewart, and he spent four decades of his life roaming around the Australian bush trying to get these birds to sing into his microphones, and he's made a massive contribution to the archive of our soundscape in Australia.

KWONG: What a collection - like, what a treasure trove for Australians.

ALBRECHT: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUSTRALIAN BIRD CALL)

KWONG: OK, Anthony...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: ...We're going to shine a spotlight and raise a curtain on the real talent here - these birds. So we're a science show. We're going to play a little science quiz game. We want to ask you not about the music or the album production side of things but about science bird facts and then see if you can guess which bird it is that we're bringing onto the stage.

ALBRECHT: This is going to be so thrilling.

KWONG: (Clapping) Here we go. Our first bird, entering from stage left, is a migratory seabird that has an average wingspan of about 3 meters. For us people in the U.S., that's almost 10 feet - OK? - average wingspan of 10 feet. This is a huge bird. It can weigh as much as a small child, and it breeds almost exclusively - this is a big clue - on Campbell Island, off the coast of New Zealand.

ALBRECHT: Hmm.

KWONG: Any guesses?

ALBRECHT: Look; wingspan alone...

KWONG: Yeah.

ALBRECHT: ...Makes me think we're talking about an albatross, and southern royal albatross is one of the most magnificent and enormous birds of the world. Am I right?

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KWONG: You crushed it. Let's hear the southern royal albatross for ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUTHERN ROYAL ALBATROSS CALL)

ALBRECHT: I'm just imagining being, you know, a lady albatross and listening to that extraordinary evocation and thinking, that's my man.

KWONG: (Laughter) Right? What a seductive call.

ALBRECHT: Absolutely - so guttural.

KWONG: What do you think is more erotic, your cello or the southern royal albatross?

ALBRECHT: We're getting into really serious questions now, and I would contend that I have absolutely nothing on the southern royal albatross.

KWONG: (Laughter).

ALBRECHT: I mean, I even play a baroque cello, which has gut strings. But compared to the guttural bellowings of that albatross...

KWONG: (Laughter).

ALBRECHT: ...I'm - I bow down in eroticism terms (laughter).

KWONG: Anthony, it's not your fault. It has hundreds of years of evolution on you compared to the cello - not your fault.

ALBRECHT: I would suggest even millions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUTHERN ROYAL ALBATROSS CALL)

KWONG: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: All right. Next, coming from upstage, we have a bright little bird, and the male and the female are actually different colors, OK? So the male is bright green, and I'm talking, like, neon green - like, highlighter green - whereas the female is a vivid red - like, blood red, "Game Of Thrones" red. The females make their homes in forest hollows, and that's primarily where they hang out. And the better the nest, the more males she'll get to bring her food. In this bird species, the females kind of have the power. Do you know which bird we're talking about?

ALBRECHT: None other than the absolutely stunningly beautiful eclectus parrot...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

ALBRECHT: ...Absolutely unmissable in the rainforest. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ECLECTUS PARROT CALL)

KWONG: This bird is in charge.

ALBRECHT: (Laughter) Most definitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: On stage right enters our next candidate. This bird is shy, about the size of a chicken. And this is kind of cool - this bird builds huge leaf mounds, with a hole dug down deep in the middle, and they lay their eggs in the mound hole and then cover them with more leaves so that when the leaf debris decomposes, it incubates the egg. Like, its composting its own egg, which, as our producer, Berly McCoy, points out, is very efficient and very smart. Do you have a guess as to what this bird is?

ALBRECHT: Of all of these birds on the album, I wonder if we're talking about the plains-wanderer?

KWONG: Nice try...

(SOUNDBITE OF SAD TROMBONE SOUND EFFECT)

ALBRECHT: Ugh.

KWONG: ...But no.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALLEEFOWL CALL)

ALBRECHT: Oh, you've got me there. I mean, it sounds like another sort of...

KWONG: You can pull up the album. You can look.

ALBRECHT: Actually, it's a - is it a malleefowl?

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KWONG: Yes (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: Wow (clapping). See? These ears - the ears of a musician.

ALBRECHT: (Laughter).

KWONG: This is that skill (laughter).

ALBRECHT: The chicken-size reference being the big hint there when we're talking about a malleefowl - but what a cool sound.

KWONG: It's a very cool sound. The malleefowl, to me - it's like, is it a loon or is it a cow?

ALBRECHT: (Laughter).

KWONG: It's kind of both.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALLEEFOWL CALL)

KWONG: Do you hear what I mean?

ALBRECHT: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

KWONG: Now, this bird is listed as vulnerable, and there are quite a few predators that go after the malleefowl, but I was reading that critical issues for this bird have to do mostly with habitat fragmentation. Would you say that that's something that you see in Australia a lot?

ALBRECHT: Australia is one of the worst global offenders for land clearing, often cleared for, in particular, large expansion of cattle stations or things like that. So, yeah, it's part of a big picture of environmental degradation in this country where a lot of species are suffering a similar fate. Their homes are just being cleared out from underneath them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: That's very much the case with this last bird we're going to play as part of the quiz portion of our game.

ALBRECHT: OK.

KWONG: It is one of Australia's rarest birds, OK? And I'm actually going to play you the sound first, just to help you out, and then I'll provide some details.

ALBRECHT: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISY SCRUB-BIRD CALL)

KWONG: So this bird was actually considered extinct until a population was discovered in the 1960s in Western Australia. It has very specific living conditions. It's essentially flightless. One website said it was, quote, "more likely to be heard than seen." Anthony, who is this elusive songstress?

ALBRECHT: I believe that it may be the noisy scrub-bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KWONG: Unbelievable. What a beautiful song.

ALBRECHT: Some ornithologists describe the noisy scrub-bird's sound as ear-splitting because, if you're anywhere near it, it's just, yeah, real loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISY SCRUB-BIRD CALL)

ALBRECHT: You can Google a picture of one of the known strongholds of their population - a place called Two Peoples Bay. But, yeah, a super cool songster.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISY SCRUB-BIRD CALL)

KWONG: You know, listening to all this birdsong with you, it's almost bird virtuosity, as far as the musical complexity in the birdsong.

ALBRECHT: Oh, it is, most definitely. I mean, some of these birds evolved to have extraordinarily complex vocal cords and muscles. And, you know, we have birds producing more than one note at once. You play back some of these sounds in slow motion, and you just hear absolutely incredible complexity and virtuosity, as you say.

KWONG: Yeah.

Anthony, I want to go out with the first featured bird on the album - and I've heard it's your favorite - the fernwren. You set it up. You intro this bird.

ALBRECHT: This is a plain, brown, little bird that scurries around in the leaf litter of rainforests up in Far North Queensland, but it's got one of the most stunning, resonant, mournful cries that, to me, sort of embody the message of this album, which is asking us to listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FERNWREN CALL)

KWONG: Anthony Albrecht, thank you so much for bringing this work into the world and for talking to us on SHORT WAVE.

ALBRECHT: My absolute pleasure. Thank you very much as well, Emily.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: "Songs Of Disappearance," an album of 53 Australian bird recordings, is out now. Help it get to No. 1 on the charts, people.

This episode was produced by Berly McCoy, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Katherine Sypher. The audio engineer for this episode was Neil Tevault. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Top Articles

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Errol Quitzon

Last Updated: 07/19/2022

Views: 5764

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (59 voted)

Reviews: 82% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Errol Quitzon

Birthday: 1993-04-02

Address: 70604 Haley Lane, Port Weldonside, TN 99233-0942

Phone: +9665282866296

Job: Product Retail Agent

Hobby: Computer programming, Horseback riding, Hooping, Dance, Ice skating, Backpacking, Rafting

Introduction: My name is Errol Quitzon, I am a fair, cute, fancy, clean, attractive, sparkling, kind person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.