Forty spots

Entry, page 11/12 Birds of Victoria Gould League

Years ago I found grounded, a dead bird,

Stiff and cold. My damp palm swallowed its whole

Strangeness — mine to learn of a fowl dead.

Exquisite bird, miniature creature,

Said new to me. Unrecognised, Geoffrey

Enunciated, “A spotted pardalote.”

Time ticked slowly. Home – facelift begun.

A midget bird flew in nearby tree tops

Swooped low to the foundations busily

Constructing a home. Weird bird nesting in

The dark earth, unique, beautiful creature.

Absolute unto land, nests low — lives high.

Up in the eucalyptus — eating lerps.

Its forty spots endangered by mankind

Forever. Denuded ecology 

Awful progress a threat to extinction.

Birds of Victoria was a first bird book of Andrew’s in 1974. In 2020 Professor John Woinarski of Charles Darwin University predicts the life of the Spotted Pardalote is endangered.

Thanks John

Nick used to have a chicken he would play with for hours. The now nameless chicken was happy to be carried around, in his arms lying upside down. One trick he happily played with it was to lightly run his outstretched fingers over its face. The bird would close its eyes and lie motionless on its back, even when placed on the ground, before it realised it was free to resume its day.

In our garden we watched the blue wrens dance about collecting insects from the comfort of our lounge. The tiny birds are no bigger than one of the eggs Nick’s hens laid, yet despite their bright colours it was possible to miss them except for their nimbleness. First they were here, next sitting on the barbed-wire fence 20 metres away, before we spotted them again jumping about in the grass. Their hens were just as busy but not so obviously seen. The industriousness of each bird a simple reminder there were things to do.

Frequently the jobs were ignored as kookaburras would announce their arrival with a hearty laugh. They perched in open places outside our reach. When they finished, they, like the other common resident with rapier like beaks, the magpie, would sharpen the beak on the branch beside them. These birds, each with a distinctive song, added joy to our lives.

The joy of birds is a universal thing. In the outback the chattering Apostle birds are observed as a puffin is in Great Britain, a Curlew in Queensland, the skylark and the peacock in India. Twitterers are found throughout the globe. They will stand daylong in a draughty hide to spot a rare bird. Or they will travel the length of the country to see more birds than another in the same year.

In our neck of the woods we have birds that migrate from Russia each year just to rear their chicks. When they have fattened them and taught them to fly they will be off with them, to the other side of the world, so they can gain enough strength to repeat the journey six months later.

This year botanists, who watch for these things, are reporting their numbers are down again. Their reports are beginning to become alarming. The retuning birds are fewer than last year. Worse they are lighter than their great grandparents were just ten years, ago and fewer nestlings are expected to survive. It is not unusual for the returning birds to die when they reach land. The mass deaths have occurred from year to year when the days before their arrival is unusually stormy. What is happening now, apart from the hungrier bird arrivals, is the difficulty the birds have in finding space to nest.

This country has become obsessed with urban growth. In most other parts of the world we have visited the demarcation between agricultural land and urban land is sharply defined. Here our suburbs just roll on through farms. For instance chicken farmers have industrialists develop housing blocks to their fence line. When the new residents move into their new homes they complain to the authorities, (those that approved the development) the place stinks and the poor poultry farmer has to close down his operation.

Closing pig farms or poultry farms is as commonplace here as is knocking down sprawling trees. Trees that have grown on the same undisturbed land for hundreds of years are bulldozed just so a road can be built to the next tree, that was knocked over, to build a housing estate.

The poor residents that have lived happily in those trees for just as long are homeless. One of the biggest birds often dislodged this way is the sulphur crested cockatoo. The family of this big white bird, (as intelligent as all-get-up), has had to wait at least 80 years for a nest. They choose to watch the spot, a branch once grew – to form a scar on the trunk – and use that hole when big enough as a nesting home. (That shows these birds are patient as well.)

(Unsurprisingly the new home buyer looks forward to settling down getting to know the neighbours. What they find, is the sulphur crested cockatoo. This bird, with the long memory, does what has been done to it, and it systematically starts to demolish the new home in much the same way as the demolisher once did to them. In no time at all the human neighbours lose all patience with the avarian and the bird is banished. It is never, however, vanquished.)

In this multicultural land we have lots of birds from many different lands. What scientists tell us is. the indigenous birds that once lived in lightly inhabited grasslands and forests are seeing off the birds of migrant origin that once happily reigned over the cities. Black birds used to cause havoc on dusk as they met before roosting for the night. These common birds are being driven away and our original birds are flexing their muscles shouting, “enough is enough.”

I don’t think a lot about birds anymore but like most Australian children I grew up as a member of the Gould League of Australia. This association did so much to engender into young minds the importance of birds. This was especially so when in came to our wild birds. The birds found here had no pressure to develop by natural selection as those born on different continents. Our birds are uniquely beautiful and the Gould League helped us understand that. I guess that is why I now have a renewed interest is spreading the word we must not continue to destroy the habitat of our birds because when we do we destroy our inheritance.

John Gould was a nineteenth century Englishman who visited Australia and recorded many of our birds. His illustrations of our bird life are wonderful examples of beautiful birds and birds exquisite art. His folios are must see treasures. Thanks John.

Remembering Chloe the Sulphur Crested Cockatoo I had as a pet. Each year she laid an infertile egg at the end of winter, just to remind me she deserved the wild life I denied her.