The Pied Butcherbirds of Spirey Creek

The Warrumbungle Range is a volcanic outcrop forming a spur of the Great Dividing Range reaching out into the plains of north central New South Wales. The range is roughly circular in shape, enclosing an area of 24 square miles. Since it’s the meeting point of moist eastern mountains and dry western plains, it’s also specially rich in flora and fauna. Parts of the valley floor had in the past been cleared for pastoral use; now most of the area forms one of our National Parks.

East and West Spirey Creeks rise high in the south-east of the mountains and meet to create an open valley which runs north to join the Wambelong Creek in the centre of the park. This valley is the home of the Pied Butcherbirds which I recorded between the 15th and 17th of September, 1983.

Pied Butcherbirds live in family groups. Both sexes sing and their music is fundamental to communication and bonding between members of the group. I recognise a Pied Butcherbird by the quality of its voice and the style of its singing. They have a number of calls which they share with other Pied Butcherbirds, but the musical content of the songs varies from one area to another, even between neighbouring territories. Essentially, their territory seems to be defined by the family songs which they learn from their parents and siblings, that is, by means of a musical tradition which each generation may take over and use in its own way. The last time I heard the Pied Butcherbird music of Spirey Creek (December 1987), it contained several new elements among those already familiar to me.

The music most commonly heard consists of short antiphonal duos and trios which are sung throughout the day. The much longer, and more developed song—usually a solo—may be heard at night and at dawn in the breeding season, but I’ve once heard and recorded it as a unison song between two birds at 8 o’clock in the morning. This exception seemed like nothing so much as a singing lesson. Because the Pied Butcherbird’s song is delivered slowly, and well within the human audio spectrum, it is easy for us to follow it both in detail and broad outline. It is also easy for us to appreciate its harmony, a harmony it shares with many of its neighbours, most obviously, the Magpies and the Currawongs, as you can hear in these recordings.

The Pied Butcherbird is a virtuoso of composition and improvisation: the long solo develops like a mosaic, through varied repetition, adding elements, eliminating elements, some elements remaining constant, others continually transforming. It’s a virtuoso of decoration: there is an extraordinary delicacy in the way it articulates the harmonic course of its song with microtonal inflexions, or places its cadences with a bird’s equivalent of tremolandi and flutter-tonguing.

I’ve made a number of recordings of Pied Butcherbirds, and many of them are technically better than this set; but, beautiful as they may be, none of them matches the performance by these particular birds. Serendipity plays a large part in determining the musical quality of a soundscape, and there are no retakes in the wild.

The Pied Butcherbirds are the centrepiece of this soundscape. They are our way in to the valley and the music really begins when we hear the whole valley singing with them.

The frogs of Spirey Creek introduce us to the valley, where, in the middle ground, a Pied Butcherbird is singing from a solitary cypress pine soon after 5 o’clock on a cool spring morning. The dawn chorus is just beginning. We approach closer to the cypress and listen again—at one point turning to listen to each point of the valley, while the Pied Butcherbird continues to sing in the background. Then we come right up to the tree and hear every detail of the bird’s song in close-up. Behind him, and to the right, a Magpie sings, sharing the same mode.

In the second part of the soundscape the other members of the Pied Butcherbird’s group join in singing antiphonal duets and trios from different parts of the valley. They may be as much as a hundred yards apart, singing from one tree to another. They introduce new musical material and different harmonic areas. In the final sequence a single bird makes a dramatic return to the opening harmony against the spiky counterpoint of a Noisy Friarbird.

DL, 1990.