There’s a tūī in our garden who has taken on the song (if you can call it that) of an Indian myna. Why it would do this is a mystery to me, unless the mimicry was expressly done to irritate humans.
This tūī uses its new song at dawn, rooster style. So we are now waking to the sound of a shrieking chickork-chickork-chickork, followed by a couple of tūī riffs thrown in afterwards for good measure. The whole effect is not entirely pleasing. Mind you, the tūī ’s own song is eccentric in its own right.
As the terrific website NZ Birds Online tells us, the tūī ’s voice is “a loud and complicated mix of tuneful notes interspersed with coughs, grunts and wheezes. In flight, tūī maintain contact and harass raptors with a repetitive scream.”
But people tend to like the tūī ’s song – perhaps it’s the tuneful bits that we hold on to. Or maybe the unpredictability of it all.
Mynas were introduced to New Zealand in the 1870s. To the South Island actually, to control insect pests. But because they came from steamy India, they didn’t like the cold down there, and so expanded northwards, reaching Auckland in 1947. So they certainly have been around long enough for the tūī to poach their song.
There are no longer mynas in the South Island, or in Wellington – they seem to have settled anywhere north of 40 degrees South.
So why would our tūī mimic the myna? Maybe it’s hoping the disguise will save it from being hunted. The remains of tūī are apparently the most common small bird to be found in Māori middens, so they were food, once. I don’t know how much tucker a roast or hangi’d tūī would offer up, but there you go.
All this got me to thinking about the benefits, or the pitfalls, of singing someone else’s song. There are some people who are enamoured with others, and who then take on their verbal mannerisms. To me this always appears a little sad. A case of confidence gone astray. Like the tūī , I would prefer them to sing their own song. But for them, they must take some solace in sounding like someone else. Maybe it’s an unstoppable force, and has to do with more than insecurity.
You hear the same in the accent of Kiwi professional sportspeople who spend much of their time in the USA. After some time, their diction takes on a distinctive edge. It’s to do with the influence of others, in the majority, around you.
So maybe our tūī is simply succumbing to the force of numbers, for it does seem there are more mynas than them on the island.
For a muso starting out in career, the pressure to sing someone else’s song is immense. I imagine said musos would dearly love to play only their original compositions, but all the audience wants to hear is something they recognise. So it becomes a neat trap: your own songs will only get recognised if they’re played a lot, but playing those songs risks losing the listeners. Unless they’re very catchy that is.
And maybe this is where the tūī succumbed. For the myna’s song, brash though it may be, is instantly recognisable – even if it’s not that easy on the ear. Have the mynas won? Is getting the tūī to sing their song some kind of triumph?
I hope this won’t be the fate of all tūī . Just that of one confused, impressionable youngster in our garden. We thought of playing it recorded tūī warbles, just so it may get its mojo back. That might be a case of tampering with the law of the jungle, but in this situation, I’d be prepared to give it a go. So c’mon tūī , get your own song back!