Thom van Dooren
One of my strongest memories of last summer in the Blue Mountains, through long days thick with smoke, weighed down by a dry baking heat, was the palpable presence of an absence, a silence of birds. To be sure, there were many new sounds to take their place: helicopters and sirens, sometimes howling winds, and for those unlucky enough to be at the fire front, the roaring of flames. But a little further from the action, in still moments, I remember the eerie silence. In this part of the world, though rarely seen or heard even at the best of times, one of the birds now missing in this new way was the regent honeyeater. Having only recently become aware of these incredible, threatened, neighbours, I watched on with a growing sense of dread as the fires moved through some of their last remaining breeding sites, at the height of what should have been their breeding season.
The regent honeyeater is a bird with more than a little of the majestic about it. While its feathers are predominantly black in colour, most of those found on its body and upper wings are edged with white or yellow, giving the impression of a bird strikingly embroidered. In years gone by, these birds were widely distributed across eastern Australia, from Adelaide all the way up to southern Queensland. Their nomadic flocks ranged widely, occupying different areas each year based on the availability of nectar and insects.
When the first population estimates were made for the regent honeyeater in the late 1980s, their numbers had already plummeted, down to around 1,500 birds. That trend has continued since, with the most recent estimates suggesting that there are now only about 300 birds left.
Like so many other species in this part of the world, the decline of the regent honeyeater is intimately tied to the destruction of the box-ironbark and other Eucalypt forests they once called home. On an unbelievable scale, these forests have been cleared, fragmented, and degraded. In recent decades, the impacts of climate change have been added to this lethal mix.
In the 2019-2020 bushfire season, almost half of the regent honeyeater’s known breeding sites were impacted, along with an untold, vast, area of their wider habitat. But fires do much more than kill adult birds, their nestlings, and their eggs. They also transform the remaining forest. Especially where fire intervals are too frequent, they reduce flowering events and the maturation of trees, altering the distribution, timing, and abundance of the flowers that honeyeaters are so dependent on.[i]
As the population dwindles, it is increasingly facing new challenges to its survival. It seems, that the highly dispersed, nomadic, way of life of the regent honeyeater is one that only really works at certain densities, with a critical mass of birds moving around this vast landscape, able to encounter one another, to learn from one another, to reproduce with one another. Once numbers drop below that level, as they now have, the species enters into something like a death spiral in which its whole way of life, with its richly social fabric, starts to come undone.
We don’t know an awful lot about the specific form of this social life. But regent honeyeaters once spent much of their time in nomadic flocks. At night, they roosted communally, sometimes in groups of over 100 birds. When they nested, each pair maintained a territory, but multiple pairs together formed loose aggregations.
It is this now absent or frayed social context that male regent honeyeaters seem to need to learn their song. As with many songbirds, male singing in this species plays a vital role: it is used to attract a mate and to claim a breeding territory (or rather, as Vinciane Despret has argued, perhaps territory is itself a “pretext to sing”).[ii] Young birds are thought to learn their songs from a variety of older males, listening, copying, practicing, and improvising their own particular melodies. This song would have been unique to the individual, but it would pick up elements of the social cohort to such an extent that scientists describe evolving song ‘dialects’. Regent honeyeaters that grew up in different parts of the country had specific regional variations.
These days, when those few regent honeyeaters still hatched in the forest are old enough to leave their parents’ territory—at about 40 days of age—they’re lucky to find any other birds to learn from during that critical, sensitive, period in their first months when they develop much of what will be their song. Or, more accurately, they’re unlikely to encounter any other regent honeyeaters. And so, instead, many young birds now seem to be learning the songs of other species, of wattlebirds and friarbirds, of currawongs and rosellas; one bird has even been observed imitating the long, mournful, call of the bush stone curlew.
This change in regent honeyeater song cultures, we can only assume, will further hasten the decline of the species, undermining the potential for birds to find one another and cement the relationship needed to bring the next generation into the world. Here we see that extinction does not arrive all at once; it is an unravelling, an undoing, of ways of life, of intricately entwined social and ecological relationships. An organism’s way of being in the world—in this case its distinctive song culture—can be, and often is, lost long before that final death. Lost in a way that not only foretells, but in its own way helps also to bring about, that ultimate loss that is an extinction. In this way, the song of the regent honeyeater is woven into a larger story of forest decline, of wanton land clearing and escalating drought and bushfire; processes that are remaking, undoing, eradicating, both life forms and their precious, evolving, forms of life.
Thom van Dooren is an environmental philosopher and writer at the University of Sydney and the University of Oslo. His most recent book is The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds.
[i] Woinarski, JCZ, and HF Recher. “Impact and Response: A Review of the Effects of Fire on the Australian Avifauna.” Pacific Conservation Biology 3 (1997): 183–205.
[ii] Despret, V, “Phonocene: Bird-singing in a multispecies world.” Paper presented at RIBOCA2, September 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U90M8rhQI6c&ab_channel=RIBOCA