Birdsong Album Tops Australian Music Charts

'Songs of Disappearance' features the calls of 53 threatened Australian birds.

male Victoria's Riflebird displaying feathers

drferry / Getty Images

In a surprising turn of events, Michael Bublé, Mariah Carey, and Justin Bieber have all been surpassed on the Australian ARIA music charts by an unexpected upstart—an album that consists entirely of birdsong. "Songs of Disappearance" features the voices of 53 birds, all threatened species, collected over more than 40 years and now turned into a lovely, meditative recording.

The album has sold 2,000 copies so far, 1,500 in presale, which, the Guardian points out, is "a far cry from the number that used to be required to enter the charts, before the music streaming era." But nowadays it's enough to push the album near the top, and to indicate tremendous public support for an idea described to Treehugger as "crazy, but it just might work." It's currently holding the No. 5 spot, more than a week after its release.

"Songs of Disappearance" is the result of a partnership between the Bowerbird Collective and David Stewart, who is responsible for collecting the birdsong recordings. All proceeds from album sales go to BirdLife Australia, in order to support and promote the latest version of the Action Plan for Australian Birds, a comprehensive review of the continent's avifauna that has been published each decade since 1992.

Treehugger spoke to Sean Dooley, national public affairs manager at BirdLife, who described the album as "a great opportunity to highlight the plight of our threatened birds in a much more upbeat way to a different audience than we can usually reach."

He said the organization has been thrilled by the public's response. "Birds provide the soundtrack for our lives, an expression of the identity of the landscape. The range of birdsong covered by the album is by turns beautiful and bizarre to listen to, and I think the visceral realisation that these unique sounds could one day soon be silenced forever is very poignant. There is also something very soothing and meditative about listening to birdsong."

The album consists of an opening track that's a collage of all 53 calls and songs. It was created by violinist Simone Slattery, who told the Guardian that she "kept listening until I could feel a structure coming to me, like a quirky dawn chorus." The sounds might surprise listeners with their lack of melodiousness, Slattery added. "They're clicks, they're rattles, they're squawks and deep bass notes." The rest of the album features individual bird songs.

A listener cannot help but feel alarmed at the thought that these songs could disappear forever. Australian birds (like birds elsewhere in the world) suffer from historical and ongoing habitat loss caused by land clearing, fragmentation, and the degradation of woodlands, forests, and coastal wetlands. But as Dooley explained, the latest version of the Action Plan for Australia's Birds (which BirdLife helped to produce) quantifies for the first time how climate change is directly reducing bird numbers.

"The Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20 alone made 26 birds more threatened than they were ten years ago, including 16 on Kangaroo Island alone. And we now have evidence of significant population declines for 17 birds in the high altitude rainforests of Far North Queensland, including the lovely Fernwren, which has had a 57% reduction in numbers since 2000, and remarkable birds such as Golden Bowerbird and Victoria's Riflebird, one of only four Australian Birds-of-Paradise. Overall it is estimated that there are six million fewer of these 17 birds than there were at the turn of the century, and climate change is the prime cause."

Statistics like these are terribly depressing for readers, not only for what they reveal but also for the sense of helplessness they induce. But at least "Songs of Disappearance" offers some practical solutions. Most obviously, profits from sales go toward BirdLife's work; but Dooley believes the benefits extend beyond that. He told Treehugger, "The greater value is bringing to the attention of a wider audience the beauty and wonder of the birds singing on the album."

He said that conservation efforts do work. The latest Action Plan reveals that 23 species are doing better now than they were in 2010, and that is no small accomplishment. "In nearly all of these cases, this is due to direct conservation action, most of which was successful because it involved both government funding and resources in combination with local champions in the community."

In order to continue helping birds, Dooley said, "We need more people in the community involved—not just to take part in local conservation actions, but to demand government to step up and save the birds that they care so passionately about. 'Songs of Disappearance' is a terrific way to help engage people on this mission."

You can purchase a digital recording here. All physical CDs have sold out, but you can register interest for a CD reprint. In the meantime, listen to the introduction below and, chances are, you'll immediately feel a sense of tremendous calm, relaxation, and protectiveness toward the miraculous creatures that make such sounds.