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You do not need to be an ornithologist to see that there is something special about Australian birds, whether you are listening to the extraordinary calls of the lyrebird, seeing bright wrens and colourful fruit-eating pigeons, or enjoying the antics of our clever parrots. In fact, the very specialness of Australian wildlife led the great naturalist Charles Darwin to ponder the possibility of two Creators – one a steady sort of chap, turning out sparrows and bunnies, and the other a total nutter who made things like emus and kangaroos.

For most of the twentieth century, European and North American scientists assumed that birds evolved in the northern hemisphere, and that they had the “normal” birds. Australian birds broke a few of the rules, but they could be comfortably dismissed as second-hand fauna from a lost continent where all kinds of wacky things happened.

As the ABC science program Catalyst explained last month, it is only in recent decades that Australian scientists dared to challenge that orthodoxy. In the 1980s Australian scientists used DNA evidence to show that the world’s 4 500 species of songbirds – like the jays, thrushes, robins, and mockingbirds – were all descended from Australian songbirds. Far from being some crazy breakaway branch on the evolutionary tree, our birds were the originals.

This rocked the science world, which demanded evidence from the fossil record. Nobody had ever bothered to look for any fossils, but once an Australian scientist did, he found the bones of a tiny finch-like bird in Queensland in the 1990s. It was the earliest songbird ever found in the world by a staggering amount – at 54 million years old, it was at least 25 million years earlier than anywhere else.

More DNA evidence revealed that Australia was the ancestral home of the world’s pigeons and parrots as well, meaning that the majority of birds in the world have Australian ancestors, and that Australia was the most important continent for bird evolution. Australian birds did not break the rules of evolution – they made the rules!

For example, Charles Darwin proposed that birdsong evolved so that male birds could attract females with their beautiful voices. That never made sense in Australia, where in most species female birds also sing (and sometimes sing more than males). Before, Australia could be written off as a weird exception to the rule, but now we know that birdsong evolved on a continent where both female and male birds sing, so the old assumption cannot be true.

Birds have helped shape our continent for tens of millions of years, and our land has echoed with their songs, even during the many millions of years that the rest of the globe lay silent. But they have also shaped the entire world by filling it with the most intelligent and melodious of birds. In other words, there is only one Creator – and it’s the nutty southern hemisphere one.

BIRDIE
Birdie (or birdy) is a diminutive of the word bird, nearly always seen as affectionate and child-like; the word dates to the late 18th century. The word was associated with the days of early photography, when photographers would show a little metal bird to their subjects, and tell them to Watch the birdie to keep them focused. In golf terminology, a birdie means a score of one under par, and originated in New Jersey in 1899 – it’s from the American slang bird, referring to something excellent.

Birdie has been used as a personal name since the 19th century, but probably more commonly as a nickname than as a legal name. Mostly given as a name to girls, Birdie can be seen as a pet form of names such as Bertha, Bridget, Barbara, Elizabeth, or almost any name with a strong B sound. On Mad Men, Elizabeth “Betty” Draper was called Birdie by her husband as an affectionate nickname.

On the other hand, it is often given as a true nickname – that is, with no connection to the given name at all. An example is the British singer Birdy, whose real name is Jasmine van den Boegarde – her parents called her Birdy from the time she was a baby, because she opened her mouth to be fed like a little bird. These types of nicknames are not uncommon amongst the British aristocracy.

Birdie was used as a name more often in the United States than other countries, and it was on the US Top 1000 for girls almost continuously from 1880 to 1948, peaking in 1882 at #151, and not leaving the Top 500 until 1927. In 2013, 37 girls were named Birdie in the US, while Birdie has only charted once in the UK since 1996, when 3 baby girls were named Birdie in 2010 (data doesn’t take into account people with Birdie as their nickname).

There are quite a few women named Birdie in Australian historical records, mostly born in the late 19th and early 20th century. It can be found occasionally given to boys in the middle position, where it may come from the surname – the surname has nothing to do with birds, but is a corruption of the oath, Par dieu, French for, “by God”. I have recently seen a baby girl named Birdie in a birth notice, while a blog reader named her daughter Mabel last year, but calls her “Birdie” as her nickname.

Vintage nicknames like Buddy and Buster are back in vogue, and Birdie is a very stylish example of the trend. It manages to be cute, without being overtly flirty or sexy, and has a rather upper class feel. Definitely one to watch!

MELODY
A melody is a sequence of notes which makes a musical phrase or motif – what we might otherwise call a tune. The word is ultimately from the ancient Greek meloidia, meaning “singing, chanting”.

Melody has been used as a girl’s name since at least the 18th century, but became more common in the 19th. The name Melody first charted in Australia in the 1960s, debuting at #543. It is currently around the 200s. In the US, where it has charted since the 1940s, Melody is #171 and rising, while in the UK it is #261, and appears to be rising slightly.

Melody is a popular choice for singers, who either seem to have been inspired by the meaning of their name, or have adopted it as a stage name. American singer-songwriter Melody Gardot took up music as therapy after an accident, Melody Thornton is a member of the Pussycat Dolls, while young Australian country singer Melody Pool’s career is just starting out. Japanese pop singer Melody Ishiwara has sisters named Harmony, Rhythmy and Christine (rather in the style of sisters named Grace, Faith, Hope, and Michelle).

There have been several characters named Melody in recent popular culture, such as the daughter of Ariel and Eric in the sequel to The Little Mermaid, the cute ditzy drummer from Josie and the Pussycats, and Melody Pond, the mysterious time-traveller from Dr Who, who goes by the name River Song.

I’ve noticed that people often dismiss Melody as a “dated” name, because it shares a similar sound to Melanie and Melissa, which both peaked as popular names in the 1970s. However, a look at the data shows that this isn’t correct, and underlines the dangers of judging a less-common name based on how it sounds.

Melody is an underused modern classic which has never been higher than the 200s, and is higher now than it has ever been; overseas data suggests that it may even be rising slowly. It’s pretty and music-themed, fitting in well with the current trend for names such as Aria, Harmony, and Cadence, while still feeling like a traditional choice. It’s well worth considering if you are searching for a lyrical, contemporary name without any baggage that has been overlooked by most others.

POLL RESULTS
The name Birdie received an approval rating of 56%. 36% of people loved the name Birdie, and 22% thought it was a terrible name.

The name Melody received a lower approval rating of 48%. 45% weren’t too keen on the name Melody, and 15% loved it.

Information on songbird evolution from Catalyst’s episode Where Birdsong Began, shown March 10 2015, and based on the book Where Song Began, by Australian biologist Tim Low.

(Photo shows an adult male superb lyrebird, an astounding mimic; both males and females sing, but males are louder and more skilful).

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