Now and Then: Buln Buln encounters Common Blackbird 


by Catherine Clover 

View Catherine Clover's Biography

Catherine Clover is a British artist based in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia.

Now and Then: Buln Buln encounters Common Blackbird

Catherine Clover


For reading aloud only!


Listening and walking on Wurundjeri Country, Sherbrooke Forest

pyingpyingpyingpying  Early afternoon in Sherbrooke Forest. The woods are dry in the wintery cool following a hot summer. It's quiet, little sound can be heard, few birds are calling, it's still, with a slight breeze in the branches high above. Mountain Ash grows here, one of the tallest of flowering hardwoods. Tree ferns dapple the low autumn light through their huge radiating lacy fronds and their emerald green colour contrasts with the flat blue-grey-green of the leaves of the tall straight eucalypts. Below, multi-colored lichen, moss, and fungi grow on dark spongey fallen trunks and branches. The tall trees let the light in and characterise cool temperate rainforest like this, shady at ground level but with the light from above forming glades. Silver Wattle, Blackwood, Southern Sassafras, Blanket Leaf, Mountain Grey Gum, Shiny Cassinia, Tree Everlasting, Mutton Wood, Bootlace Bush, Rough Pea Bush, Bidgee-Widgee, Rough Bedstraw, Self Heal, Blown Grass, Bent Grass, Weeping Grass, Tall Sedge, Native Flax, Soft Water Fern, Shiny Shield Fern, Finger Fern, Black-Spored Agaric, White-Spored Agaric, Brown-Spored Agaric.

  Wurundjeri Custodian, linguist and artist Mandy Nicholson tells us that Superb Lyrebirds are known as Buln Buln in Woi wurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri people.

  I am walking with Jan Incoll of the Superb Lyrebird Study Group. After many years of living close to Buln Buln, she can tell me about each individual. The younger birds can voice six or seven songs, while mature birds can render thirteen or fourteen. Younger birds tend to be fast and less accurate, but with experience they learn to slow down and achieve greater fluency. Older birds are highly proficient and use pace and timing effortlessly as they blend numerous songs with their own. Both male and female Buln Buln sing.

  Stop. We hear something. Singing. Singing. Scratching. A group of six Buln Buln are running through the forest together, gamboling through the late afternoon light   trrrrup trrrrup   It's quite easy to follow their movements because they sing as they run, their voices distinctly audible   trrrrrp
  zingzingzing    They pause but they are well camouflaged in the dappled light against the branches and trunks and ground cover trrrrrp In their voices I recognise Eastern Whipbird, Laughing Kookaburra, Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo, Red Wattlebird.
Their sounds are loud and close


Buln Buln sings


      trrrrrup       trrrrrup

pyingpyingpyingpying pyingpyingpyingpying            

Buln Buln sings Laughing Kookaburra


ka ka       ka-ka ka-ka ka-ka ka-ka

Ak! Ak! Ak! Ak! Ak!       Ak! Ak! Ak! Ak! Ak!


Buln Buln sings Eastern Whipbird

pweeeeeeeeeeeee       hooWhip!       wee-oh wee-oh

wheeeeee       ooWhip!       wee-oh wee-oh


Buln Buln sings Pied Currawong

karoop karoooahh

      karoop-karoop karooaahh


Buln Buln sings Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo

rraarrrk rrraaarrrk rrrraaarrrrk       rraaarrrrk rrrraaaarrrk


oooeeeeyowwww       eeeyah eeeeyah

Buln Buln sings all the birds

trrrrrup       trrrrrup

            pyingpyingpyingpying pyingpyingpyingpying

  trrrrrup       trrrrrup

            pyingpyingpyingpying pyingpyingpyingpying

            ka ka

ka-ka ka-ka ka-ka ka-ka     Ak! Ak! Ak! Ak! Ak!

rraarrrk rrraaarrrk rrrraaarrrrk rraaarrrrk rrrraaaarrrk rrrrraaaaarrrrrk


eeeyah eeeeyah

pweeeeeeeeeeeee            hooWhip!       wee-oh wee-oh

pyingpyingpyingpying pyingpyingpyingpying


Listening on Wurundjeri Country, close to the Merri Merri

  Early morning. The tight restrictions of lockdown have been in place for some weeks. It's dark, cool, still. At first light, dawn, Common Blackbird joins the dawn chorus. Common Blackbird's song is immersive and is a melodic complexity of silvery notes following a structure of variations on a theme. The blossoms are coming out and the air is pungent, a heady scent of early Spring. A glass-greeny primrose yellow seeps into the darkness, then turns a watery blue as the sun approaches the horizon. The bright daub that is Venus, low in the north east, stays visible until just after sunrise. The wide soundscape of birdsong soaks and thickens the scenting air.

  Common Blackbird is an introduced songbird and their songs are melodic, complex with huge variation, high pitched pure whistles. There is some repetition in the distinct stanzas or verses, which comprise what seem to be unrhymed poetic couplets and are like a call and response within the song itself. Common Blackbird's song takes place mostly at dawn or dusk, and only in Spring and early Summer.

  One afternoon Common Blackbird seems to be preparing for song, practising, repeating short phrases as vocal exercises. This could be sub-song. These short phrases introduce the verses that make up the melody in the full songs they sing

Common Blackbird sings

ee ee orr-up...

ee ee orr-up...

orr ee-ah orr...

orr eh-ah orr...

ah ah ee-ee...

ah ah ee-ee...

orr ee-ah orr upp...

orr ee-ah orr upp...

ohh orrr ahh   ee-ahh orrr ...

ohh orrr ahh   ee-ahh orrr ...

And, later, the start of full song

orr ee-ah orr upp prr-ahh trrr trrr woo-ooo-ooo tri wu wu

ooh oh trr trr ah ee ee tru oh oh true

orr ee-ah orr upp prr-ahh trrr trrr wee eee tree ee

wah oh eeh tree e wee eee tree ee woh woh oh

orr ee-ah orr upp prr-ahh trrr trrr ee tra eee woh

trr tra trra eee prrr eeeoh oh true wee eee eee

Reading on Wurundjeri Country

  The slower pace of lockdown means I have been able to catch up on books I have wanted to read for some time. One of these is Melissa Lucashenko's Mullumbimby. In this story the characters refer to Dadirri in the Bundjalong and Yugambeh languages, which Lucashenko translates as a form of Aboriginal meditation. In Lucashenko's story, whenever the main character, Jo, gets into difficulties she recalls her Aunty Barb telling her to pause and pay attention, to remember Dadirri: to stop, take notice of Country and what Country is telling her, to listen and look. The way out of the difficulty is then given a chance to emerge. This idea seems particularly resonant at this lockdown moment, when those of us who can, have the chance to put the isolation to good use, to pause, take stock and take notice, to reflect, to pay attention. In the story, Dadirri is also a chance to remember the Old People, Jo's Ancestors, who are continually present in the book and hover across the pages and the characters and most of the plot, living around and with her in a concrete way. During one of her attempts at Dadirri, when she is up on the ridge, she hears mysterious singing, and does not understand what she is listening to

trrrrrup     trrrrrup         trrrrrup     trrrrrup

  At the end of the story Jo discovers that what she had heard (spoiler alert!) were the local Buln Buln singing the songs of the Old People, the birds having preserved the ancient human sounds in their voices. In this way, Jo and her people have a sonic connection to their ancestral knowledge, a connection that had been destroyed by the colonists but preserved by the birds

pyingpyingpyingpying pyingpyingpyingpying

Sometime in 1860, a speculative journey and arrival

  It was 1860 when Common Blackbird was first introduced to southeastern Australia by white British colonists. The birds were brought to Melbourne and Adelaide. Once released the birds adapted and subsequently spread across the southeastern corner of the continent. I imagine the journey by sea that the birds would have endured, caged. Their singing may have been loud and continual throughout the journey, as most caged birds are highly vocal because of the stress of captivity, especially wild birds that are newly confined

ah ah ee-ee

            ah ah ee-ee ah     ah ee-ee

  The birds, the birds. The birds in the cages on the ship. Singing. The journey would have taken months, and I wonder how many birds survived. The journey would have been perilous and conditions onboard poor ee-ee     The birds would probably have travelled on a clipper ship, perhaps the Marco Polo or the Great Britain. With three masts and huge amounts of sail to catch even the smallest of breezes the clippers could travel at speed and were more efficient than the newly built steam ships of the time. Heading south. Heading south. Perhaps wild sea birds trailed the clipper on its long journey across the seas. Albatross, Shearwater, Petrel, Skua, Jaeger, Tropicbird, Tern. The sounds of the seabirds calling. Perhaps the seabirds heard the voices of Common Blackbird for the first time and Common Blackbird may have heard the unfamiliar calls of birds that spend little time on land. The songs of the Blackbirds singing. Singing. Heading south and singing. Albatross. Shearwater. Petrel. Skua. Jaeger. Tropicbird. Tern.

  On release, Common Blackbird would have faced many difficulties, not least of which would have been identifying a sonic niche in the biophony

ah ah ee-ee

    ah ah ee-ee

  According to soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause who defined the term in the 1970s, the biophony is the sound of all living organisms in a particular environment or biome. Each organism vocalises using a specific bandwidth or frequency so that their voices can be heard by their species. When a new sound is introduced into the biophony an imbalance can occur but can also be redressed, as the biophony is in constant flux, changing continually. Like Buln Buln, Common Blackbirds are songbirds, so a flexibility is inherent in their voices and they can change their sounds and learn new ones

  orr ee-ee orr ah

  Their voices would have affected the biophony of the area, perhaps interrupting or disrupting some of the existing frequencies of the local species. But the loud raucous voices of some of the local birds may have caused Common Blackbird to struggle to locate a sonic niche. In addition, in Australia it is common for both female and male birds to sing and they often duet

orr ee-ah orr     ee-ah orr     ee-ah orr

  Yet Common Blackbird must have been able to share physical space with the native birds by using unoccupied sonic bandwidths. When I listen to Common Blackbird today I can hear the differences in voice between the birds in Melbourne and the birds in Berlin or London, where they are native. All are urban birds living in large noisy cities, but Common Blackbird's song in Melbourne tends to be shorter in duration, louder in intensity, marginally lower in pitch and slightly less complex

  ah ah ee-ee

More than a hundred years later, another journey

  I arrived in Australia when I was thirty through a Gertrude Contemporary art residency   orr ee-ah orr   The gallery was then called 200 Gertrude Street, was in Fitzroy and Rose Lang was Director. The artists in the local studios became my friendship group, and many still are today. I had come from a Britain that had a population of 58 million, with London's population at seven million. I was living in Brixton, south of the river, in the middle flat of a house on Coldharbour Lane. The Tories were still in power (although no longer led by Maggie Thatcher) and had been all my adult life, since 1979, the year I went to sixth form college to do my A levels

    eee eee orr-up     eee eee orr-up

  This is just over 130 years after Common Blackbird was introduced to Australia by colonists determined to have the songs of their homeland audible in the Australian landscape, songs with which I was very familiar from growing up and listening to the birds in the gardens, parks and along the streets of the greater London suburbs

orrr ee-ah orrr upp

    orrr ee-ah orrr upp orrr ee-ah orrr

  As a young white woman of Anglo-Scottish heritage, I had no understanding about the colonial trail that I was following, a trail that bore me so easily from Britain to Australia, from the north to the south. I was oblivious to the ease with which the journey took place because of the well-trodden route between mother land and ex-colony     ohh orrr ahh     I had no comprehension of the contemporary postcolonial ramifications of one country occupying another by force. This was not how I was taught in the history and geography lessons I had at school in Putney, south west London, during the seventies   ohh   ohh   ohh   I can remember some of the classes about Australia. There was the huge land mass, the ancient geology of the continent, the sheep and sheep stations, the state of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef, the heat and the extraordinary wildlife. The word colonisation was not mentioned in those classes, nor were the words Aboriginal Australians, Indigenous culture, Indigenous languages, let alone the words Wurundjeri or Woi wurrung, and certainly not the terms Stolen Generations, Indigenous cultural genocide or intergenerational trauma.

  I had two friends who were living illegally in Britain and they noted how easy it was for me to just go to the other side of the world

  orrr ee-ah     orrr ee-ah

  I had no answers to these observations because I had no comprehension of the privilege they were referring to. I got a visa, booked a flight, and flew south, excitedly heading to one of my first international art residencies. The only problem I had with border control was when I wanted to stay longer than the length of my visa and I applied to extend it. Proving to the Immigration Department that I was a tourist and that the art residency was not 'work' was ironic   ee-ah     as I was already familiar with the struggle to prove that artmaking is useful, relevant, necessary work and not just underpaid fun and frivolity, as people I knew who were not involved in the arts seemed to think   ee-ah     ee-ah   I got the extension and stayed an extra three months

ohh orrr ahh

    ohh orrr ahh trrrr trrrrr eee eee

The later 1800s, Wurundjeri Country, Coranderrk

      trrrrrup         trrrrrup


  The State Library of Victoria archives state that in 1860 the population of the settler colonists was 500,000, the Melbourne City Baths had been built and opened, rabbits were introduced and released near Geelong, and the doomed Burke and Wills expedition departed from Royal Park. Many of the ships arriving from Britain were landing in Melbourne because of the Gold Rush, which had begun in the 1850s, and it was the Gold Rush that forced many Aboriginal people from their lands. Diseases from the colonists, mistreatment, the consumption of alcohol and the spread of VD had disastrous effects on Aboriginal people, their culture and knowledge. It was in 1863 that Coranderrk Station near Healesville was opened where the surviving members of the Wurundjeri people were forcibly re-settled

      ah ah

  Wurundjeri Elder William Barak was a founder of Coranderrk Station and became a key figure in negotiations between his people and the colonists. Auntie Joy Wandin Murphy, a descendant of William Barak, says he was highly respected by all, a natural leader and a person of many traditional skills including hunting and the making of tools, storytelling, singing and dancing, painting and drawing

trrrrrup       trrrrrup   trrrrrup       trrrrrup

  His paintings and drawings record a traditional Aboriginal life that was already vulnerable to the assimilationist policies of the colonisers, through which remaining connections to cultural knowledge were routinely undermined and dismantled. It has been suggested that the figurative style of Barak's drawings was directed to the colonists, but the works have since become a record of the time for Wurundjeri people today, depicting information about culture, customs and ceremony that would have otherwise been lost because of the aggressive eradication practices of colonial settlement.

  One of Barak's iconic drawings from 1899 (National Gallery of Victoria) has several labels, either Untitled or Untitled (Hunting Scene) or Untitled (Corroboree). It depicts the clothing, body painting, movement and dance of the Wurundjeri people. Boomerangs seem to be used to create a percussive rhythm and dancing is taking place with/amongst numerous native animals including Emu, Kangaroo, Goanna, Possum, Echidna, Wombat, Snake. Beside the Snake in the top right corner is Buln Buln. The names of the animals have been written on the drawing in English and there seems to be no attempt to transcribe the names in Woi wurrung. The striped patterning of the possum skin cloaks worn by some of the participants are echoed on the bodies of the animals, visually suggesting the deep connections between Aboriginal people and all animals. There are no introduced species in this drawing, only native animals and birds

trrrrrup       trrrrrup

  It is possible that Buln Buln would have encountered Common Blackbird by the date of Barak's drawing, 1899, and would have begun absorbing and rendering the new arrival's song via the diplomatic role of multi-linguist that they play amongst all the birds. In this way Buln Buln would have cemented the song into their own, recording and sonically archiving the arrival of Common Blackbird to the area

trrrrrup       trrrrrup

Listening and walking on Wurundjeri Country, Sherbrooke Forest

trrrrrup       trrrrrup

  Sherbrooke Forest is not far from Coranderrk, less than 40km, and the songs I heard Buln Buln singing are likely to have deep hereditary connections to the ones their ancestors sang near Coranderrk where Barak was drawing

trrp trrp trrp

  Buln Buln are foraging in the undergrowth, and they sing head down as their long talons dig deeply through the piles of leaves and soil, spraying mud all around. Their voices are not muffled by the foraging and they remain loud and resonant even with head down low. They forage, sing, forage, sing, moving through the forest. Buln Buln are known to move kilos of undergrowth as they scratch through the leaf litter looking for insects

pyingpyingpyingpying pyingpyingpyingpying

  Further into the forest, I hear some of the birds whose songs they adopt. At first I cannot distinguish between who is singing when, between Buln Buln and Laughing Kookaburra, Buln Buln and Eastern Whipbird, Buln Buln and Pied Currawong. But as I listen, I begin to discern that Buln Buln uses slightly shorter phrasing in quick succession. If we understand Buln Buln as ambassadors and as diplomats as the ancient histories in Wurundjeri culture tell us, then they are communicating with all the birds. They are not mimics but multi-linguists

  trrp trrp

  Buln Buln sonically reflect the soundscape of the forest they live in through their astounding approximation of the bird songs around them. As I listen Buln Buln disappear taking their songs with them.

  And then

Buln Buln sings Common Blackbird

Ohh orrr ahh ee-ahh orrr prr-ahh woh woh oh ee tra eee eee eee

woh trr tra trra eee prrr eee woh oh ee woh tra wooo-ahhh

Ohh orrr ahh ee-ahh orrr prr-ahh trrr trrr woo-ooo-ooo tru wu wu

ooh oh trr trr ah ee ee ee tru oh oh true e wee eee tree ee

Ohh orrr ahh ee-ahh orrr prr-ahh wah oh eeh tree e wee eee tree ee

wah oh eeh tre oh ee tre woh oh oh ee tra ee prrr trrr ee ee


Buln Buln (Woi wurrung) Superb Lyrebird (English) (Trans. Mandy Nicholson)

Dadirri (Bundjalong/Yugambeh) Aboriginal form of meditation (Melissa Lucashenko and Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Baumann)

Merri Merri (Woi wurrung) Merri Creek (English)

Works Cited

Austin, Victoria I., and Anastasia H. Dalziell, Naomi E. Langmore, Justin A. Welbergen. "Avian vocalisations: the female perspective." Biological Reviews Volume 96, Issue 4, (August), 2021,

Australian Fisheries Management Authority, Australian Government.

"Seabird Identification Guide." Accessed 2 August, 2021.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2009, Durham.

Birdlife Australia, n.d. "Superb Lyrebird." Accessed July 25, 2021.

Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Knowledge. Polity Press, 2019, Oxford.

Clover, Catherine. "Common Blackbird." Xeno-Canto. Accessed August 8, 2019.

Clover, Catherine. "Superb Lyrebird/Buln Buln." Xeno-Canto. Accessed August 8, 2019.

Disclaimer Journal. "If Something is Asleep You Can Always Wake it Up: Mandy Nicholson in conversation with Danni Zuvela." Accessed August 2, 2019.

Friends of Sherbrooke Forest. "Indigenous Fauna." Accessed February 10, 2022.

Friends of Sherbrooke Forest. "Indigenous Vegetation." Accessed February 10, 2022.

Koorie Heritage Trust, "Auntie Joy Murphy Wandin: Coranderrk." Accessed August 8, 2021.

Krause, Bernie. "Biophony."In Welcome to the Anthropocene. Accessed 15 August 2021

Low, Tim. Where Song Began. Penguin Books, 2014, Australia.

Lucashenko, Melissa. Mullumbimby. University of Queensland Press, 2013, Brisbane.

Museum Victoria. "Journeys to Australia 1850s-1870s." Accessed 1 September, 2020.

Odom, Karan and Riebel, Katharina. "Female Birdsong". Leiden University. Accessed August 1, 2020.

Ryan, Judith. "Important Drawing by William Barak." National Gallery of Victoria. Accessed August 12, 2021.

State Library of Victoria, n.d. "Coranderrk Mission." Accessed August 8, 2021.

State Library of Victoria, n.d. "Introduced Animals." Accessed August 8, 2021.

Superb Lyrebird Study Group. Accessed August 1, 2021.

Voegelin, Salomé. The Political Possibility of Sound: Fragments of Listening Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, London.