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Of Koalas, Nightmares, and Nocturnal Australia

magpie

Crickets act as a backdrop to the setting sun, an orchestral build behind the real music. If you’re near water, you can hear the frogs begin snoring, rich and pleasant. As the night rolls in, you might hear the bats as they patrol for insects, blipping away like the sound of a fork on a plate, but the volume turned low, low.

Together, they sound like summer night.

It is then that the cutest and most charismatic of Australian wildlife turns this soothing night music into an M. Night Shamylan score: the koala.

koala sounds

Koalas alternate between two noises: an inhale and an exhale. Biologists refer to it as a “bellow,” but “nightmare chord from Satan’s deepest hellpit” may be more accurate.

The inhale sounds like somewhere between an angry pig, and a bear being woken up from hibernation. The exhale sounds like the first few coughs of a rusted chainsaw, mixed with the warning growl of an asthmatic panther. The exception is if this is a quick call and not a full-blown announcement, in which case it simply sounds like a dying man raggedly gasping for air.

Little joeys call out too, but as they aren’t big enough yet to fully fledge a properly terrifying hellnoise, they suffice with gulping thin breaths that sound like a suffocating man pleading “help…” to no reply. Females sound like whiny kazoos.

You wouldn’t expect this coming from a koala, which is composed of 80% huggable fluff and the remaining 20% a mixture of butterflies, sunshine, and baby gurgles.

Watching a koala do anything is like watching two 3-year-olds fall asleep holding hands after a long day playing with a puppy: its just too god damn cute to do anything but simper.

But this is surprisingly the case with most Australian wildlife: what seems either resplendent or adorable by day takes its revenge by inducing nightmares in even the most stoic by night.

The crimson rosella, a ruby-red parrot with sapphire wings, shrieks unexpectedly at a pitch that cuts through thoughts like an unexpected chalk squeak wakes a class of sleeping students. The sulfur-crested cockatiel, a Colgate-white bird with a yellow Ace-Ventura flare, is a gregarious and photogenic bird, collecting in flocks near civilization and along roadsides. Those flocks only amplify their individual shrieks, and together at night they sound like the soprano screech of the tortured dead.

Even the kookaburra, an Australian symbol immortalized by its iconic bush laugh, starts to sound more like The Joker in his pivotal moment of revenge once the sun goes out. And there are some noises to which I can’t even attribute a species, ones that sneak out in darkness and drive imaginations to the brink.

My first night in Australia I stood staring concernedly off my balcony, wondering if I needed to go and intervene with what sounded like the intermittent screams of a rape in progress. I later learned that the responsible party was one of the many stately white curlews that stilted around campus during the day.

I still cannot place the animal responsible for the call it occasionally chooses to sound from the trees above my tent. I can only describe the noise, the closest comparison I can draw being a roulette table after twenty pack years – a throaty rattle that starts suddenly, then slows to silence. Highly disconcerting when it goes off at 2AM, hovering somewhere in the dark three meters over your head.

Amidst the shrieks, groans, and rumbles of Aussie night, however, there remains a single jewel – a valved, flutey call that ranges over a number of octaves and sounds like the hum of a finger tracing a crystal glass.

From having heard it first, I wondered if I would ever hear it again, imagining the sound to belong to a very rare and beautiful jungle bird. But it persisted, at long intervals, welcoming the day, and for the rest of the week my head would shoot up at its sound trying to catch a glimpse of its origin.

When at last I isolated the song to a single tree, I was surprised at the bird that exploded from its branches as I approached: a black body, straight beak, with swords of white across the wings like scalpels.

The orator of this wonderful work was the common magpie.

magpie

The Australian magpie is just barely above “raven” on the scale of creative palette use, having added only a single color to its cousin’s classic coat – white. This tuxedo of the avian kingdom is, when compared to the menagerie of colors that Australia offers, almost wholly forgettable.

I first noticed it from a car window and thought what most people must think on first seeing one – “huh, we don’t have those where I’m from” – but so quickly did other interesting Australian things to see materialize that the black and white of the magpie swiftly melted into the grey morass of my memory. From a blind test, you would never match the song to the bird.

With our eyes, we shape the world.

With sounds, with smells and touch, we populate it, we give it a soul.

Sight is so central to so much of our life that when it drops away, we’re left lost in a city of senses. In that void, creaks become burglars, scrapes become the walking dead, and a noisy koala becomes a bloodfed hellfiend.

Lying alone in full darkness, miles away from anyone, immersed in the animal screams of a new world, sleep is much easier written than won. But for every demon a cross, and in a country where colors compete for brilliance, where fish and birds flash by like rainbow meteors, and where no it isn’t your imagination, the grass actually is greener; the most muted of birds holds the greatest powers of exorcism.

The song of the magpie is like – imagine this – a chorus of flutes, playing in harmony, heard from behind a waterfall. Ink on a page is a poor substitute for the true concert, but it is fitting that this James Bond of birds deserves his definition.

In a night that my mind seems determined to populate with devils, full of sounds that fuel insomnia, it takes a single call to send the shadows away.

The song of the magpie is like the sun as she rises, and the night forest falls silent to listen.

Image Credits: Luther Bailey / Tom Tarrant

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