Chris Watson

Reserve Bank of Australia

Birds On Money: not a field guide but a talking point

Current AffairsChris Watson

On most days, it would take a bird a lot rarer than an Eastern Spinebill to create this sort of kerfuffle.

The "offending" note...

The Reserve Bank of Australia announced yesterday that the new series of Australian banknotes would each feature depictions of a native bird and flower. This will commence in September this year with the $5 note featuring the flowers of Prickly Moses – a wattle, Acacia verticillata – and the endemic Eastern Spinebill Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris, an endemic and fairly common species of honeyeater.

Everybody on social media was carrying on like a pork chop all day - #5dollarnote was even trending nationally on Twitter (and the thread is worth perusing for the avalanche of Photoshop piss-takes alone). The furore seemed mostly about the atrociousness of the design. It’s been likened to a technicolour yawn by grinning moustachioed Sydney dauber Ken Done and, to be fair, that’s not far wrong. It certainly shares a lot in common with his characteristically gaudy palette. Others have pointed out that it’s the worst likeness of Her Madge since John Napper’s 1953 abomination. I’d rather the old dear wasn’t on our money at all, but that’s just my opinion.

Then there’s the bird.

Not surprisingly, it was the bird that caught my eye. I was excited at the news that we’d finally be getting birds on our money; the lack is something I’ve lamented ever since a recent visit to New Zealand. Their notes are all graced by their spectacular endemic birds with their spectacularly endemic names; Whio, Kokako, Hoiho, Karearea, Mohua. You immediately know you’re visiting a place with special fauna and that the nationals are at least aware enough of that fauna to have it on the money.

Aotearoa - that's how you design banknotes

The spinebill on our new note caught me off guard at first. Having recently written about natural hybrids I thought we were being presented with a honeyeater that has been entirely too friendly with a Gouldian Finch. In the real world, Eastern Spinebills present in a dapper adult plumage of bright earthy tones delineated with crisp black and white markings. It’s a pretty bird and a good choice to adorn the money, but has this one caught a bit of Done’s splatter?

Eastern Spinebill - less colourful in real life but still an arresting bird

I’m certainly no designer so my opinion on such matters is next to worthless. As one pundit put it more succinctly – it’s just money, not a field guide. I think the folks who have been most up in arms are missing the positive story here: our flora and fauna (and birdlife in particular) in the limelight where they belong; where they become a topic of popular conversation and commentary. Getting cash from the ATM was one of the first things I did on that trip to New Zealand but it stands out in my memory because I was so delighted to go through the notes and discover all of the birds before I’d even left the terminal. So it will be with international visitors as they shuffle through Tulla or Mascot in years to come. Even before they encounter the multi-species wall of audio-visual sensory overload that is the lorikeets in most Australian airport carparks, they’ll have noticed our dollar birds shortly after being done up like a kipper at the bureau de change.

As all the armchair design experts on social media started going red in the face over the look of the note, I began fielding a sudden surge of Twitter messages and phone calls from radio presenters and journos who were keen to learn what was special about the Eastern Spinebill. Why had it been selected rather than the Western Spinebill? What’s the difference? What does it sound like? What does it eat? Where does it live? This is one of the more common birds of parks and gardens and the commercial media were as thirsty for information as if someone had just rediscovered the Dodo.

Birdos across the country were handed a rare teachable moment and there weren’t enough of us taking full advantage of it. When the subsequent notes come out, we should be ready.

So the spinebill is a bit off colour. Perhaps you could even say it’s a riotous desecration of the bird’s true appearance. We’ll be waiting a few years before we get to see how the other species will be treated but they’re likely to be interpreted in a consistent style.

When that happens, maybe it’ll be best if we focus discussion on how much money we’re committing to the protection of our birds rather than how accurately (or inaccurately) they appear on it.


PS: If people are interested enough to ask about the birds, they’re probably keen to learn more; point them in the right direction. BirdLife Australia is always looking for new members.