Since BirdLife Australia launched the Aussie Backyard Bird Count in 2014, the number of participants has risen from 9,000 to over 70,000. Unsurprisingly, the amount of birds that have been counted in our cities and towns has also risen – from 850,000 to more than 2.75 million birds last year.
Yet when it comes to the top 10 most commonly seen birds, the song remains the same, with the same species entrenched firmly at the top every year. It’s the birding equivalent of tuning into Countdown in the 70s to find Abba’s Fernando top of the charts for the 27th week in a row.
Birds are not only the soundtrack to our daily lives, they are an expression of the landscape – the continent’s original songlines. When you change the habitat of the country, you alter the soundscape too. If we had run the Aussie Bird Count back in the 70s when Abba were inescapable in the music charts, the top 10 list would have looked quite different because the urban centres where the vast bulk of Australians live have radically changed. We have planted native trees such as flowering gums in our yards and streetscapes, attracting larger, nectar-feeding birds such as rainbow lorikeets, noisy miners and red wattlebirds. We have also seen the decline of traditional English cottage-style lawns and rose beds so favoured by sparrows, starlings and blackbirds. Yet at the same time we saw the emergence of outer suburban sprawl and inner suburban infill, where houses and apartments are built to the edge of the block with little room for the greenery that smaller birds such as wrens and thornbills depended on.
Very few native birds have been able to adapt to this alien environment, yet only two of our top 10 urban species are introduced birds, the house sparrow and the common (or Indian) myna. So what is it about the others in the top 10 that have managed to thrive in the modern urban environment when all about them have fallen? At first glance they are an eclectic bunch, comprising three parrots, two honeyeaters, the magpie, silver gull and welcome swallow. Quite a disparate bunch in terms of size, shape and preferred food but what unites them all is that they are aggressive, adaptable or highly intelligent, or in some cases all three.
The silver gull did not evolve eating chips; there were very few verandas for swallows to nest on, yet they have adapted. The others tend to survive the mean streets by ganging up and becoming bullies. We are all familiar with stories of the notorious ‘Indian’ mynas killing other birds, but did you know that the similarly named, yet entirely native noisy miner is an even greater bully, driving almost all birds the same size or smaller than itself out of its territory? In some areas rainbow lorikeets seem to be out-muscling even the mynas.
There have been far more losers than winners in the bird world since we began radically altering the Australian landscape 230 years ago. Particularly hard hit have been the quiet birds, the specialists, whose livelihoods have been overtaken by the brash, the aggressive, the opportunistic. Sound familiar?
However, like in the human society they reflect, there is a looming threat on the horizon to the ascendency of these current winners. Climate. Last year the crested pigeon – the dove-like bird with the punk black, spiky crest that historically inhabited the arid inland – almost cracked the top 10. In previous droughts they have spread towards the coasts and infiltrated our cities. Many never left. With 2019 being yet another exceptionally dry year, this could be when we begin to see a changing of the guard, as the reality of a hotter, drier climate starts to hit home.
But we will never know if we don’t get the data. This year, more then ever, we need as many people as possible to join in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count so that our annual snapshot of Australian birds becomes clearer and more finely detailed than ever before.
To join the Aussie Backyard Bird Count download the #aussiebirdcount app or go to aussiebirdcount.org.au