Losing Your Song

Have you ever thought about a bird losing its song? I haven’t. I assumed birds were born knowing how to sing. Then I read an article in the New York Times about the Regent Honeyeater, a critically endangered bird indigenous to Australia. There are now young Regent Honeyeaters who can’t sing because they have to be taught to sing. There aren’t enough birds left to teach them all. If they can’t sing, they cannot mate, forage or mark their territory.

There is so much birdsong in our yard. It’s a backdrop, like the radio, but the songs are pure and simple. The birds repeat their calls over and over throughout the day with a mix of melodies that sound the same unless you sit and listen closely. Then you discover that each chorus is unique. One bird moves and another perches. One forages and another flies away so the music is always changing. I’ve tried to figure out which call belongs to which bird with limited success.

I listened to the songs of the Regent Honeyeater today. They are more complex than the tunes in our yard and they vary. Some are light and bubbly and others singular and commanding. With about 300 birds remaining, who knows which songs will last.

I always thought birds sought each other by color. It turns out their sound matters more. Bird calls are so critical to survival that a bird will adopt another bird’s call if necessary. Thus, a robin can sing like a dove, a wren like a finch.

For me, a bird losing its voice is one of the most compelling reasons to protect our planet. Most of us would prioritize bigger and more obvious threats. There’s soil erosion, water quality, and human habitation, to name a few. Still, the loss of the Regent Honeyeater, and in particular its song, seems tragic. Maybe it’s because a small bird, left to die because it can’t sing, reminds me of the grim fairy tales that haunted our youth. Or maybe it’s that the singular losses always take up more space in our hearts. Or, more likely, it’s because the unsung among us often pass without notice.