ON a British winter’s day, as cold as it gets, I finally put to the test the only piece of scientific research I have ever conducted – to address the notion that European blackbirds introduced to Australia in Victorian times have developed an Australian accent.
Anecdotal evidence of the “okker” blackbirds has long fascinated me and over time I have attempted to determine whether it is true or not from the Australian end – namely by getting friends over in Britain to dangle a telephone receiver out of the window while, in my garden in Hobart, I listened to the local version of the blackbird song.
This rather hit and miss method of research, to say nothing of its eccentricity, was the subject of the first On the Wing column I wrote in the Mercury 13 years ago and I had waited more than a decade to get to Britain with a tape of the Australian song and conduct the “experiment” there.
Well, I got the chance during a brief holiday in Britain and France in January, playing my tape in the garden of friends in south-east London, much to the amusement of not only my hosts but of their West Indian neighbours.
The fact that Aussie birds of European descent – like their human counterparts – have developed their own accent is not as fanciful as it might appear. Birdsong is part inherited and part learned and this opens the way for variation in the songs of specific species. The butcherbird of Tasmania, for instance, does not just have its own name here, “the Derwent jackass”, but certainly has a different song to butcherbirds on the mainland.
I have written much about bird accents in the past, and quoted researchers far more qualified than myself on the subject, and it was good to be able to conduct my own tests in the “field”, if an area of Victorian terraced houses in inner-city Deptford, in sight of the Canary Wharf office towers in the rejuvenated London docklands, can be described as such.
Playing the tape, and listening to the local blackbird songs, was enlightening and there really did appear to be a marked difference.
The London blackbird song appeared much louder and sharper, losing some of its beautiful melody that I hear in mine and neighbouring gardens in the WaterworksValley. When I applied the test in Devon, however, I discovered a song with the same rich notes as the Hobart one, although it was still markedly different.
This was very much amateur science without any real merit but it did seem to mirror ongoing research into urban birdsong across the world that suggests city birds moderate their songs to counter the sound of the urban landscape, mainly the noise of traffic, trains and planes magnified in canyons of concrete and glass. With the blackbirds, city birds had a distinctly higher pitch to their songs, which seemed to cut through the traffic noise and make the individual notes of the blackbirds audible for quite a distance.
Compared with the Australian song, the blackbirds in both city and country appeared more complex and melodic, to my ear at least, and this perhaps stems from the fact that there are many great songsters in the British woodlands, the song thrush and the nightingale among them, and the blackbird has to compete.
Blackbirds might be great songsters in their own right but often the beauty of their melody is not appreciated. I have a theory that their insistent songs, sung all year round, are so much a part of the fabric of urban Britain that they become a background noise, just like the traffic and planes.
Background urban noise, except perhaps during summer weekends when the lawnmowers and strimmers are in full throttle, does not really apply in Hobart and the blackbirds are free to song here without being drowned out by man’s machines.
It is only the sulphur-crested cockatoos and yellow wattlebirds that raise the decibels with their guttural, raucous cries but these are sporadic, short calls, unlike the blackbird’s. For what can sometimes seem like hours in spring and summer, the immigrant blackbirds persist with their own voice.