Sunday, 24 May 2015

black and white minstrels

According to Wikipedia, seventeen species of thrush have been recorded in Hong Kong, but I’ve heard only one, and then on only one occasion. This total does not include the masked laughing thrush, which isn’t a thrush, as anyone who has heard its single-note squawk can confirm. And of the seventeen, seven are not native and have therefore been recorded only occasionally.

In the absence of such authentic songbirds in my own neighbourhood, the magpie robin has no serious rivals as the most accomplished songster. Wikipedia makes the following statements about this species:
The calls of many other species may be imitated as part of their song.
They appear to use elements of the calls of other birds in their own songs.
However, I’ve heard no evidence to corroborate either of these statements anywhere in Hong Kong, although magpie robins can be found throughout South and Southeast Asia, so it may be that in other parts of the bird’s range such imitation does take place.

Wikipedia also claims that it is a forest bird, although it can be seen and heard in urban gardens. As far as Hong Kong is concerned, this claim is nonsense. I have neither seen nor heard a magpie robin in any of the territory’s primary forest, but they are common in urban parks that have many trees.

Magpie robins are aggressive birds: I’ve seen quite a few aerial dogfights and high-speed chases through the branches of nearby trees as one male attempts to drive a rival from its territory. And their threat calls, which you might mistake for the sound of an insect, do sound quite menacing.

The typical magpie robin song consists of a six- to ten-note phrase, endlessly repeated. This phrase can be broken down into an initial three- or four-note segment, which is usually a piercing, high-pitched whistle, followed by a second segment that offers some scope for distinctive vocal flourishes. However, some such phrases are much longer, as can be heard in the following recording:

The dominant male around my house (click to play):

Each individual has its own song, and it turns out that I recorded the individual featured in this clip four times, presumably because my house falls within its territory. However, this next clip features a newcomer that seemed intent on muscling in. I saw it first atop the metal pole used to support a neighbour’s television aerial, where it repeatedly turned in different directions as it sang, probably to ensure that its presence was heard, and noted, throughout the neighbourhood. After it had briefly repeated this performance on a second neighbour’s aerial, it alighted on mine, where I recorded it.

An aggressive newcomer tries to muscle in (click to play):

I recorded the best example of what I referred to above as ‘vocal flourishes’ a couple of years ago. At the end of each iteration of its song, this individual added either a three-note phrase or a distinctive two-note, ‘wink! wink!’ vocalization.

A distinctive vocal flourish (click to play):

A few weeks ago, I was standing on my balcony, listening to a magpie robin singing from the top of the streetlight opposite my house, when I spotted a young couple walking down the road. Neither was talking, probably because both were gazing intently at the screens of their smartphones. I doubt whether either was even aware of the free musical entertainment being provided just a short distance above their heads, which I think is a sad reflection on modern society.

Unfortunately, I failed to record the most arresting magpie robin song that I heard this spring. At first, I thought that the singer was being accompanied by a second bird, which was singing in a different register, but after listening intently I concluded that it was all the work of a single bird. It sounded as if an intense conversation was taking place as the bird switched seamlessly from one register to the other with no identifiable gap between them. So why did I not record it?

I hadn’t used my digital recorder for three years, and I’d forgotten how to operate it. I tried pressing every button, but to no avail; I’d forgotten that in order to switch it on, I not only had to press the correct button, I had to keep it pressed until the screen lit up. Much to my disappointment, I never heard this performance again, but at least I’m not likely to forget how to use my recorder next spring.


  1. Unfortunately cannot hear the song on my phone. Will try on my laptop upon return to HK.

    1. Sorry about that Peter. The recordings are currently malfunctioning.

    2. I think I’ve fixed the recordings now. Let me know if you have any more problems.

  2. Call hear the sound clips, but they appear to be very similar.

  3. Thank you so much for your recordings. I am a local and living in Yau Tong, Kowloon east. I also love listening to the birds singing and trying to find them out from the trees or lamp poles, especially early in the morning when I am on my way to the tube station. Agreed with you that nowadays not many people have the heart to take a note of their surroundings and the wonders of our nature.

    1. Hi Helen. I’m delighted to hear that you listen to and enjoy the singing of birds. The magpie robins are my favourite, but listen out for the red-whiskered bulbul, which sings to attract a mate, unlike the magpie robin, whose song is territorial.


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