Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Lyrebirds and Suchlike

In the woods of Southern Australia there lives an animal called the Lyrebird, a large songbird with an extraordinary ability to mimic sounds. It generally does this in order to attract mates, which it does by putting on a show on a little staging platform in the forest, dancing around and imitating the calls of all the other birds around it. (Why the female should find this ability attractive is a mystery; it is probably to do with the principle of positive feedback loops in sexual selection, whereby a slight, random female preference for an aspect of male morphology grows exponentially as the genes for the preference and the morphology become linked; the behaviour becomes steadily more attractive because it is attrative.)

In recent times, though, the bird has taken to imitating not only other bird calls, but also sounds produced by humans - such as camera clicks, chainsaws, car alarms, car engines and rifle shots. It does this with uncanny accuracy, intertwining such sounds seamlessly into its song.

The bird's ability is, I think, by turns charming and horrifying, and in its own way a strange commentary on the modern world, in which we could say that the "sounds of the forest" as we traditionally understand them - bird song, the wind rustling through leaves, the movement of small animals in leaf litter - are only as much a part of life in the average forest as are the noises of chainsaws, rifleshots and car alarms; human development and overt influence now permeates the world to a degree which must have been inconcievable even a century ago. I've never subscribed to the view that indigenous peoples left their environments basically untouched (even the most 'primitive' societies manipulated forest fire and seed dispersal to their own advantage) but even so, it cannot be argued that our time has brought anything less than an astonishing level of human presence and human technology throughout the world.

It makes me wonder about global warming. I've often thought that the global warming bandwagon serves to distract people from other, perhaps more pressing, environmental concerns, and that it's important to note that, while climate change may threaten certain ecologies in the long term, in the short term far more pressure is being placed on the natural world by basic, old fashioned human expansionism - and we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook in that regard by focusing all of our energies on the bluff and bluster of the lobbying surrounding global warming.


mattiecore said...

Wow....that bird is something....

That sounds like a real chainsaw. It really, really does.

Yeah, the whole global warming thing I think is a little overplayed. There are definitely problems with the way humans treat this planet; I'm just very reluctant to jump on this bandwagon

noisms said...

Yes - bandwagons have a tendency just to turn me off. See my latest post, above.