The last note

Isolation has potentially fatal consequences for an endangered bird species, which has forgotten its song

A songbird that has forgotten its song. It has come to light that some specimens of the regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia), a critically-endangered bird endemic to southeastern Australia, have been singing songs which ecologist Ross Crates — who observed the phenomenon — described as “weird”. They are not singing their own songs but are imitating songs of other species such as friarbirds and cuckooshrikes.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal. It may even seem like an amusing oddity. But for this species, whose beautiful yellow markings earned it a name inspired by renowned gold embroidery of the ancient Phrygians, this development is potentially fatal. If the male regent honeyeater doesn’t sing the right song — its own song — females will reject it, thus dooming the future prospects not just of an individual, but of the whole species which currently numbers only about 300. But why is this bird singing the wrong song? Because, by all accounts, given its drastically reduced population — thanks, mainly, to habitat loss — it’s growing up in the wrong company. Young males are increasingly isolated from others of their species, including the adults from whom they learn their songs. The vicious cycle of isolation feeds on itself and, unless conservation efforts are stepped up, will stop only with the death of the last bird.

Over the last one year, humankind has come to truly understand the mental and physical toll of social isolation. Many of us have gone weeks and months without seeing another human soul, a loss that doesn’t feel real until it is experienced. Perhaps, this pandemic experience can help us understand the isolation that is now stilling the song and hastening the demise of an entire species.

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