June 12, 2024

Is there anything more thrilling than seeing an underbird soar? Keep that in mind when casting your vote in this year’s Guardian/Birdlife Australia bird of the year poll.

Previous polls have revealed a shocking bias. Support for some of Australia’s most recognised birds has been consistently weak. Let’s ruffle some feathers and give these underbirds a chance.

Illustration of an Australian Ibis

1. Australian white ibis

Victory was within beak reach for this bird in 2017, with fellow trash lovers on Twitter fuelling support. And then, in the most breathtaking election upset of 2017, the magpie swooped in to win by fewer than 1,000 votes.

The ibis then fell from fifth to 26th in successive polls. Sean Dooley, the Birdlife Australia national public affairs manager, says he is “deeply saddened” by this and the bird is bigger than its 2017 irony vote.

The ibis isn’t native to Sydney and moved in as a result of humans messing with natural water systems, Dooley says. “They were resourceful enough to find a new food source. We should be celebrating [them] rather than recoiling in disgust.”

Illustration of emu

2. Emu

Emus are prehistoric and feature on our national coat of arms, yet every year, this big bird struggles.

Dooley is “baffled” by the poor showing for “literally the most iconic Australian bird”. He says emus are crucial to our ecosystems, distributing the seeds of native plants, such as the over-harvested Western Australian sandalwood.

“The chances of the sandalwood recovering without emus would be very low,” Dooley says. “They eat the fruit and then poop out the seed hours or days later in a completely new location.”

And let’s not forget the great emu war of 1932, when the Australian army sent troops to a small town in WA to fight a group of emus that were supposedly causing a nuisance.

“The emus managed to outsmart the army,” Dooley says.

Illustration of Black Swan

3. Black swan

Dooley describes this water bird as an “intellectual contributor to the Australian philosophical canon”. Yet it hasn’t broken out of the bottom 10 since 2017.

The black swan was to pre-16th-century Europe what a flying pig is to us today – a metaphor for something that doesn’t happen. Then in 1697 Willem de Vlamingh, a Dutch mariner, spotted a pair in what was to become Western Australia. “We overtook by rowing fast [and] caught them with a hook,” noted De Vlamingh. “They were quite black.”

This was the catalyst for the black swan theory, the meaning of which varies slightly between its use in economics and philosophy but is similar to “when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me”.

“That alone should endear them to our hearts,” Dooley says.

Illustration of swift parrot

4. Swift parrot

The world’s fastest parrot only ranked 35th on its 2021 debut. According to Dooley, it is the most critically endangered bird in the running – “on a trajectory to extinction”.

He says the main threat to the swift parrot is the destruction of forests in Tasmania and New South Wales. “Both those states still have native forest logging,” he says. “Legally and illegally.”

When casting your vote, remember that the swift parrot’s centuries-old breeding and feeding trees are being felled – often to produce pulp wood.

In 2021, research by the Australian National University found there could be fewer than 300 left – that’s fewer than 40 swift parrots for every Tasmanian premier named William.

Illustration of Eastern koel

5. Eastern koel

According to Dooley, it’s just “one of those birds people love to hate”. This perhaps explains the measly 492 votes the eastern koel pulled in 2017 – which, understandably, was the last year it ran.

The eastern koel spends winter in the tropics and travels down to Australia in the summer, where Dolley says it “drives people mad with its cooee cry”.

The sound is actually the eastern koel’s mating call. A little desperate and relentless? Maybe. But given their habitat is expanding, it clearly doesn’t have a bad success rate.

For some Sydneysiders at least, Dooley says, the year’s first nights filled with the eastern koels’ love cry isn’t obnoxious at all. It’s a sign of the “hot, steamy summer nights to come”.

Illustration of a Weebill

6. Weebill

Historically speaking, little brown birds aren’t usually big vote pullers. The weebill is Australia’s smallest bird, has mousy grey-brown feathers and subsists mostly on small insects.

“They’re not flashy and showy,” Dooley says. Not exactly an obvious winner, but these birds can be pretty charming.

Dooley says their nest is “an impressive little structure … a big pendulous dome”. It’s neatly woven and lined inside with feathers and soft vegetable matter. The nest has a closed top for protection and a hole on the side, out which their little peering heads look adorable.

Weebills can be found on the fringes of most Australian cities. “They’re kind of ubiquitous, just doing their thing,” Dooley says.

He says a vote for the weebill is “a vote for the little guy”.

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