Those of us who work at Birdlife Australia get asked a lot of questions about birds. Usually, it’s to ID a mystery backyard bird. (Nine times out of 10 it’s a butcherbird!) Occasionally, we get thrown a much curlier question such as “Is a cassowary a bird?”, “Do birds have penises?” or “What’s your favourite bird?”.
The answers are: “yes”, “females don’t, but neither do males of most species – they have a cloaca, which is a topic for another day”. And the last question is almost impossible to answer. How can you possibly choose?
If pressed, I usually say the regent honeyeater because they are stunning birds that are incredibly rare. One of my colleagues at BirdLife Australia once let me hold one he was putting a tracker on as part of his research. To look down at that soft, warm collection of feathers and know I held in my hand one of the last of a species that may be extinct before I am was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life. But to be honest, I haven’t met a bird I haven’t instantly loved.
So when the bird of the year rolls around, I am always torn. It’s traumatic having to pick one bird over another. The progressive elimination system is brutal. Every day, when another much-loved bird like a little penguin or superb lyrebird drops out of the competition, is a little pill of grief to swallow. Yet I also adore the fact that it’s a celebration of our birds, that it gets the nation thinking, talking and learning about one of the most distinctive elements that make up Australia.
Without the great bin chicken controversy of 2017, many Australians wouldn’t have known that the ibis is not an introduced species or that its prevalence in cities feeding among rubbish and stealing food from picnic tables is a recently learned behaviour. It is essentially a drought refugee that has been forced from its natural home in the Murray-Darling basin due to shambolic water policies and the impacts of climate change.
So when it came to framing the shortlist for the 2023 bird of the year, much consideration went into who we chose. Rather than opting for obscure favourites of ours, such as the grey range thick-billed grasswren or the trumpet manucode, we opted to pick Aussie birds people are likely to encounter on a daily basis, or those that hold a special place in our hearts. Birds such as sulphur-crested cockatoos, willie wagtails or spotted pardalotes that connect us to nature and can spark a lifetime love.
We have tried to include birds familiar across the country, throwing in some that are emblematic of a particular region such as Carnaby’s black cockatoo in the west or the Tasmanian native-hen (AKA turbo chook). We strived to cover a spread of bird families too, so have everything from the wandering albatross through to birds of prey like the wedgie and peregrine.
You may see the names of unfamiliar birds that are coming to our collective attention due to the environmental crises our birds face. Some struggling species need all the friends they can get, which is why we have highlighted several birds that are in trouble but have attracted an army of caring allies who are trying to save them.
We have the powerful owl, which is suffering the ravages of poisoning from the new generation of rodenticides being thrown out into their environment. There is the bar-tailed godwit, a bird capable of epic endurance, flying non-stop from Alaska only to discover its shoreline home in Australia is being taken away due to developments like Brisbane’s Toondah Harbour. On our beaches, little hooded plovers have captured the hearts of communities protecting their vulnerable beach nests from people and their dogs and cars. The flocks of Carnaby’s black-cockatoos that would fill Perth’s skies are now only a fraction of their once-vast numbers.
And then there’s the swift parrot, a delightful bird that makes the longest migration of any parrot species in the world. Recent studies have shown we are losing them at such a rate that they may be disqualified from entering the 2033 bird of the year because they won’t exist. If you’re still undecided and looking to park your vote in this year’s poll, consider the swift parrot.
Sean Dooley is national public affairs manager for BirdLife Australia
You can vote in the bird of the year poll from 6am Monday 25 September to 11.59pm Thursday 5 October