Of Sydney

Lately I’ve been waking to a new noise. It’s spring and instead of slowing emerging from sleep to the sounds of squawking rainbow lorikeets or the bin truck arriving as usually happens, I’ve been jolted awake earlier than usual by a much louder noise. I’ve been speculating that it could be channel bill cuckoos or koels who have arrived from Indonesia to breed in the spring, but the truth is I don’t really know. I’m no expert on birds.

This new noise has started me thinking about the soundtracks of Sydney, and my home in Surry Hills and how much they change with the seasons. I’m leaving this biggest and brashest of Australian cities for a little while soon, and perhaps I’ve become more than little nostalgic for it because of that. But for me part of the beauty of this city is its array of sounds made by the cacophony of determined animals who have invaded it simply to survive.

I live in more of an alley way than a street. It is about half commercial buildings and half houses and there is a lot of concrete, and a lot of storeys, which makes it quite dark and cold. The hard surfaces mean noises bounce around like ping pong balls and it is almost impossible to tell where exactly they originate from.

But despite these challenges I’ve developed something of a sonic map of my suburb. There are the roads of course, which carry the soft white noise of cars, and there is central station which I can hear if I’m up very late at night when the trains start up again and it is quiet enough for their rattles to carry all the way to my house. There are the revellers who stagger down my street from Oxford St and beyond. There are the stadium rock concerts, and fireworks which, it being Australia with our apparent love of pyrotechnics, are unleashed with astonishing regularity. But amid these are the subtler sounds of animals, mainly birds and bats. Apart from the lorikeets and currawongs, there are seagulls which head in this way from time to time, and can be heard squawking and scrabbling with one another. There are the flying foxes, which stream between centennial park and destinations best known to themselves, at times stopping off to snatch something from an avocado tree near me. I find their rejected fruits in the gutter. There are, of course, plenty of cat fights, and once as I walked home after seeing David Attenborough give a talk I’m sure I even heard an owl.

There are other places a little further afield which are also distinctive soundposts, like the Ibis palm tree which I often ride past. The tree isn’t located in a particularly memorable location, and isn’t even very visible from the street. But I know I’m approaching it because I can hear it. Ibis breed in that tree, they seem to love nesting in palms, and I can hear the shrill calls of their chicks. I know this call because once, with great fanfare and drama, I raised a rejected baby Ibis from a chick until he flew away. In New South Wales these birds used to primarily be found living on inland lakes, but as the water in these areas dried up they set their sights on Sydney, and have made themselves quite at home. There are thousands of them here now, and their long beaks are often seen sliding into bins, and discarded lunch boxes. It seems something of an inglorious existence for a close relative of the Sacred Ibis, which was once worshiped as a god by the Egyptians. But these animals are getting by in their urban enclave, peering down from their palm tree homes, and eating from bins. They honk and preen, and smell and breed. They are survivors, and I love them.

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Another noisy and controversial resident of Sydney is Australia’s largest bat, the grey headed flying fox. These bats, which are protected as a vulnerable species, constantly stream over my house and can be heard chattering and flapping throughout Sydney. There is a colony which seasonally roosts next to Turrella train station which I pass on my way to work, and a huge roost was recently ejected from the Royal Botanic Gardens after a lengthy legal battle between the Federal Government and environmentalists. The gardens, which enjoy a glorious home on Sydney Harbour, wanted the bats out because they were damaging some historic trees. Bat fans, pointing to their struggles as a species, wanted them to be left undisturbed. In the end their eviction was secured by taking advantage of their sensitive ears. Recordings of jackhammers and other unpleasant banging noises were blasted from speakers near their harbourside roosts to deter them from landing. According to the gardens, all these bats are now living happily in Queensland but lots of people don’t believe them. Last year WIRES reported a record season for bat pups in care in Sydney, with huge numbers of mother bats found electrocuted on power lines. The Turrella bats, who enjoy their own band of dedicated bat counters, have seen their numbers swell from 2,000 in 2011 to 20,000 bats last October. I think a lot of bats from the gardens have found new homes near my house in Centennial park.

This park is home to many animals, loads of water birds, including whole islands full of cormorants, and extremely feisty swans who think nothing of surging toward any dog which dares to approach the water’s edge. But for me it is the bats which define it. Long before you can see them, you know you are approaching what I’ve catalogued as the ‘bat section’ of the park because the chattering begins. For nocturnal animals they seem to spend a lot of the day time awake, and there are so many of their upside down bodies in the marshy part of the park they have embraced that the skies are dark. It seems that like the ibis, there are few places too urban for these plucky creatures. Another favourite haunt of theirs is Victoria Park which sits between Sydney’s notoriously congested Parramatta Rd and City Road which moves faster, but is still clogged with cars. As night falls the bats can be seen swooping into the park, and skimming the surface of its ponds. Even with the background drone of traffic, their skimming bodies create a beautiful sound. They skim to drink, settling in some quieter section of the park to lick the no doubt quite disgusting water from their fur.

I saw the UK academic Steven Connor, who does a lot of work on cities and sounds give a talk recently at UNSW, and apart from waxing lyrical about the sounds of parrots in Australia, he had this to say about animals in the city.

‘’Animals are an anomaly in the urban soundscape, which seems to be populated and made intelligible to itself exclusively by sounds of human origin. And yet cities have never become free of animals, which are all the time finding ways of recolonising urban space, and insinuating themselves into the syntax of its sounds.”

Connor is particularly interested in literature, and his talk looked at the many different ways writers have sought to convey the sounds of urban animals. In a particularly memorable segment he read from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit:

“In the throats and maws of dark no-thoroughfares near Todgers’s, individual wine-merchants and wholesale dealers in grocery-ware had perfect little towns of their own; and, deep among the foundations of these buildings, the ground was undermined and burrowed out into stables, where cart-horses, troubled by rats, might be heard on a quiet Sunday rattling their halters, as disturbed spirits in tales of haunted houses are said to clank their chains.” (Dickens 1984, 113-14)

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These city horses living in their underground stables, and rattling their halters are just one of the many animal sounds which are now long gone from our cities. I actually am among the rare person who does hear the odd horse ambling down my street. They are police horses, and their clip clop hooves echo from the brick walls of old warehouses, now re-fitted as design studios, which are the buildings of my neighbours. There is a police stable near my house, and these sleek horses are taken out for patrols. My dog seems to think she is hallucinating whenever she catches sight of one of them, and in place of her usual hysterically overexcited response to any new animal, she simply turns away and walks on. City horses are ghosts, even as they still exist.

Horses are not the only animals whose cries and calls are no longer heard here in Sydney. Sure there are possums in Hyde Park, great big bold things who think nothing of lumbering straight towards you, but apart from them few terrestrial marsupials survive. Every now and again a bandicoot is spotted in Ashfield or somewhere, and reported on with great fanfare, but is hard to imagine that these fine featured creatures could possibly stage a revival in the Inner West of Sydney. Birds too have recorded a sorry tale of calls gone silent. Perhaps it is apt in a way given Sydney’s reputation, but in general the smaller the bird, the less likely it is to still be here.

A 2010 study co-authored by Birds Australia’s Holly Parsons which compared Sydney’s contemporary mix of birds to those listed in museum records taken prior to 1900 told a story which reflects the rapid change this city has undergone. Not a single bird appeared on the top 10 most frequent bird lists from both eras. The brilliantly blue Superb Fairy Wren was the most common bird in the area before 1900, today this tiny bird is almost completely absent. To survive the wren needs to be able to hide from its bigger predators in small prickly bushes. Without them it is easily spotted and devoured, and urban backyards with tall trees and lawn offer few hidey holes. Like the bat, this bird is not without its advocates. In Glebe a group of bird lovers are desperate to see it reintroduced to the area. When Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore approved a redesign of bushland where the birds had been spotted in the neighbouring suburb of Forest Lodge, it sparked uproar among bird lovers who arrived at the City of Sydney council meeting frothing with anger and placards. Over my years here I’ve worked on and off for local papers, and I covered this among many other doomed local movements aimed at saving small patches of bushland, or birds’ nests, or bat roosts or polluted waterways, prized trees and bandicoot homes. Such was the furore at this council meeting the usually unflappable Moore was forced to call for a break. But the park has been redesigned, and I don’t know if Fairy Wrens have been heard there since. These days apart from the odd enclave this is a town for big birds.

Sydney is often seen as a hard city; expensive, unfriendly, money-hungry and sterile. But I don’t think of it like this. Despite its hard edges, Sydney can also be a refuge – not just for people like me who came here a long time ago and struggled to find a place I belonged in its cobbled streets, tall buildings, beaches and wealth, but also for the determined grey headed flying fox and the indomitable ibis. In his talk Connor argued that given the increasingly homogenous sounds of traffic which pervade most of the world’s cities, animals have become one of the few soundmarks which can identify a place.

For me there are few things more evocative of Sydney than the shrill stabs of parrots, the honk of the ibis and the high pitched chatter of the flying fox. It is these sounds which make this city my home, the cries of fucking tough little creatures who found a way to thrive amid skyscrapers and concrete, introduced palm trees and garbage. I do hope I can still hear them when I come home.

– Words and images by Kate Carr

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  1. Welcome to Fluid Radio Kate, and thanks for the great article! I’m very interested in how sounds help to shape the meaning of places. I look forward to reading about what you hear when you reach our neck of the woods!

  2. says: kate carr

    Thanks Nathan! I’m looking forward to getting to your neck of the woods, it will be very different I’m sure. Glad you like the piece :-)

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