Birdman of the Outback

An Australian devoted his life to recording the sounds of vanishing animals.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In one of the world's last, great frontiers, an Australian bushman is racing against time and the encroachment of people to preserve the natural music of the outback.

John Hutchinson has earned an international reputation for his recordings of rare Australian birds. He estimates he has spent half his life camping solo in the state of Western Australia's rugged wilderness to record birds, frogs, and the music of Aborigines. "I love being in the bush," he says from his rustic home and recording studio in Dunsborough, a pretty coastal town in the state's south. "I make a life for myself in the bush and the campfire is my home."

In 1959, when the rest of the Western world was swinging to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Mr. Hutchinson took a new-fangled tape recorder to Western Australia's far north, and began his lifework.

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Encompassing an area about one-sixth the size of the continental US, this desert land lacked electricity, decent roads, many fresh fruits and vegetables, and outside telephone lines. Aborigines outnumbered whites by 200 to 1 in some places. "I was young when I first went up there and the young often do get lonely," Hutchinson says. "But I just had to be on my own [to record birds] and I just had to overcome loneliness."

He began by recording Aboriginal dances and relaying recorded messages between tribes who camped on the ranches of white landowners. "You would hear the Aboriginal music wafting through from the homestead in the distance," Hutchinson recalls. "You could listen and watch them if they invited you."

He later turned his attention to bird calls. But he laments that many of his early recordings are "songs of the past." Growing white settlements, forest burnings, and mining and agricultural developments have reduced bird habitats and populations, he says.

Western Australia's northern regions have changed dramatically since the 1950s, becoming a haven for New Age hippies, country yuppies, mining millionaires, and big-spending tourists. When Hutchinson began camping in the region, it was customary for two lone travelers who crossed paths to stop and "boil the billy" [kettle]. But "you would soon run out of tea bags" if the custom was followed today, he says.

Already, some 100 bird species have disappeared around the world because of over-hunting and environmental destruction. Australia has 34 endangered bird species. (The US and Canada have 15.) But at least Australia still has some of the large songbirds that have disappeared in other parts of the world, Hutchinson says.

His recording method is a laborious process that has resulted in six compact discs of bird calls and one of frog calls. Each recording took between two and 10 years to produce because of the difficulty in recording complete calls without the sounds of passing traffic and other human-made noises.

Sometimes camping continuously for six months, he scoffs at colleagues who are provided with cars and traveling allowances from their institutions and "stop at motels and hotels as much as they can."

The arduous work has its rewards. The BBC introduces Hutchinson as Australia's most prominent bird recordist when playing his works, and his recordings can be found in some of the world's most prestigious libraries.

Hutchinson is packing up to "go bush" again. He has new-found optimism in society's efforts to preserve wildlife.

When he started out in the state's north, "there were only a few of us interested in preservation and we weren't listened to very much," he says. But "people are becoming more and more aware ... that the bush is being destroyed and they realize how valuable it is."

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