December 2007 - January 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Society of birds

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

EE Cummings prayed that his heart would always be open to little birds. My family, the maternal side especially, has always shared some of his sentiment. It goes back to the clearing of the forest. As the trees went, the little birds came and dwelt in the hydrangeas under the window. Fantails, wagtails, blue wrens, scrubwrens, honeyeaters, eastern rosellas, finches, silvereyes, robins, thornbills, mudlarks and thrushes: generations of us have watched them from the kitchen and talked to them as if to friends or children. If it is one of the last pagan associations in what remains of the rural Protestant, or has a more philosophical origin, I do not know.

I do know that Cummings’ line does not ring quite true. Birds are less a matter of the heart than of the senses. We are not talking about commitment, but rather the pleasure a bird’s shape and sound affords us, and the wonder of its aeronautics. These things might be surrogates for something deeper (try holding a grey thrush in your hand and see if it doesn’t stir something) but the first conscious sensations that birds create are aesthetic ones. A hovering kite, an egret by the water’s edge, a thrush singing by the window - in every bird’s construction there is first an irresistible line.

Consider that thrush. It is a very ordinary flyer, yet in appearance it is at least as pure a bird as the swallow: a swallow, in truth, is such an aerial acrobat as to seem part bat.

“Whatever the bird is, is perfect in the bird,” Judith Wright wrote. And no bird is quite as perfect as a thrush. In the same verse Wright also talks of parrots and kestrels, but I think it’s a fair bet that a thrush - “round as a mother or a full drop of water” - inspired the line about perfection.

“Whatever the bird does is right for the bird to do,” Wright says, and contrasts that happy state with her own, which is “torn and beleaguered”. It’s a beautiful line, but like the one of Cummings, as untrue as it is true.

This spring, whenever I opened the back door, a magpie took off from its nest in a gum tree half a kilometre away and came skimming over the grass, arcing over the fences, zooming beneath the branches down the drive and veering straight at my brow, before braking impossibly late and landing on the porch rail beside me. It all took about five seconds. I’ve no doubt the magpie was showing me how exhilarating flying is for the creatures that can do it. And then it carolled.

Another magpie with a nest on a higher branch always followed the first, but it did not fly with the same élan or straight at me, and it always pulled up a metre further away. It was a shyer bird and its carol was more guttural. The first took the meat from my hand, the second only when I put it down. Both flew straight back to their nests, fed their pleading young with my mince and came sailing back to the porch again.

The young have now left the nests. In the morning they follow their parents to my back porch and whine for food while the adults warble away in their mezzo-sopranos until I come out. No unprejudiced human being could fail to be improved by the presence of magpies. They are fearless, resourceful, amusing and melodious; and, above all - as all birds have to be - stoic. But they also contain complexities of character: not in the multitudes of some humans, perhaps, but not that many less than the average. And, just to go on the sample at my door, between one magpie and another there are differences as pronounced as they are between, say, the Three Tenors or two modern political leaders when there is an election on.

Last week on a local road I saw a kookaburra dive from a fence post on one side to the verge of the other; in pursuit of what I don’t know, because in the instant that it dived, a man on a motorbike roared round the corner and the bird’s head struck the front wheel. The collision killed the kookaburra: it bounced back across the road and lay there on its back, quite still. What Australian does not love kookaburras? To be truthful, in that moment I would have been no more dismayed if it had been the motorcyclist on his back and the kookaburra flying on down the road.

What this bird did was wrong for the bird to do. Yet it was only a minor departure from the normal drama of bird life. Watch birds for a while, and you begin to see that what is natural for the bird is perpetual menace, frequent terror and sudden death - much of it inflicted by other birds - and to all this they must find solutions.

Around midnight a couple of nights ago, a honeyeater of some kind crashed into the wire-screen door and clung there shuddering. There was an owl in the trees outside. If owls are wise, it must be only in the daytime. When darkness falls they are ruthless, havoc-creating monsters. The owl and the pussycat went to sea, and when night fell the owl tore the cat to pieces.

Every day in the society of birds down by the lake, harriers, kites, falcons and eagles glide among their fellows, brazenly looking for one to kill. Patches of feathers and down on the ground - all-white, pink and grey, red and blue, green and yellow - are all they leave of any bird they catch, and the proof of their efficiency. They are the SS of the lake. Like owls, they use not just the weapon of surprise, but that of terror. They hunt in pairs or trios: hovering over the marshes on the edge, or sweeping and swerving low over the gums and willows in the hope that their sudden appearance, or the equally potent effect of their shadow, will frighten something out.

They glide and soar and dive in accordance with their natures and our ideal of them. But they also concoct, invent and improvise. On windy days they let the air carry them wildly from tree to tree, as if to use unruliness as a disguise and to heighten the terrible effect of their shadows.

At dusk, when flocks of galahs, corellas and cockatoos go screeching home, the hawks station themselves in trees, or glide and swirl about looking for their chance. But at the same time of the day, I have watched a falcon stand for 20 minutes in the reeds by the edge of the lake. I thought it was counting on ducks or cygnets coming ashore, but when a flock of parrots flew overhead the falcon climbed into the air - and into the parrots - like a surface-to-air missile. On another occasion, it hid for a long time in the grass on one side of a low ridge, then suddenly soared into air and swooped down the other side and onto some creature it must have sensed was there.

In response to the raptors’ ingenuity, the parrots have worked out their own defences, which amount to a kind of Resistance. They post evening lookouts in the trees and on the ground. They divide their flocks. They fly jagged, crazy paths. They communicate endlessly. No galah or cockatoo ever seems to move without screeching a message of some kind to every other galah or cockatoo within a kilometre, and none ever hears a screech without replying.

And they are served by other species: by the magpies and mudlarks that spend a good part of every day obeying their ferocious territorial instincts and driving raptors from their airspace, and by crows whose motives might be more subjective.

If there is one bird unloved even by those who love birds, it is a crow. (In fact they’re ravens, but in the language they are crows.) Crows are hated because they are black and symbolise death and drought; because their cawing is maudlin and depressing; and because they are eaters of carrion. What is worse, they eat dying animals before they are dead. Unable to pierce the hide of feeble young lambs, they peck out their eyes and tear their mouths and tongues. For this cruelty - which is considerable, but nothing to our own - they are abominated.

Here is something a crow did. One morning three brown falcons were hooning around and wildly diving at every living thing, including a colossal pelican many times their size. It seemed likely they were just enjoying the general commotion their antics were creating, but they must have had a serious purpose because eventually one rose from the banks of a small island with a little egret in its claws. The other two flew off with it to share the meal.

A dozen galahs went back to the dead tree in the middle of the lake where they nest and camp at night. Two others sat lookout on the branch of another tree, 300 metres away; and a metre from the two galahs sat a crow - talking to them. Not cawing - but talking, in a low and irate voice.

It was still talking when one of the falcons returned, flying at great speed towards the tree where the dozen galahs had settled. The crow took off in hot pursuit, surging to a level a few metres higher than the other bird and then, as the falcon’s approach panicked the galahs into the air, the crow dived and knocked it sideways. The falcon recovered its poise, but the crow struck again and again and drove it off the lake. The crow flew back to the two galahs.

Absurd as it may seem, I could only see the crow’s behaviour as fulfilment of an undertaking he had given the galahs. It was conscious philanthropy. Later, it also seemed to me to be the antithesis of our ancient belief, alive still in such fables as the Fox and the Scorpion, that animals cannot act outside their (savage) natures. Not for nothing are that view - and that fable - very popular with devotees of the free market.

A couple of weeks after the episode on the lake, I noticed a teal labouring on foot between two dams, when out of nowhere a falcon swept in to kill it. A millisecond before the falcon reached the helpless duck a crow reached the falcon and knocked it to the ground. Another crow followed up. Feathers flew. The duck fled back the way it had come. The hawk went home defeated. The crows hopped off into some cypresses. It was impossible to see what they had gained from the action, unless it had satisfied some charitable instinct or a subjective loathing for the other bird.

Then I could fuse my passions into one clear stone

And be simple to myself as the bird is to the bird.

Some birds, maybe, but not quite as the crow is to the crow. Or the magpie is to the magpie. Or the butcherbird with the beguiling song is to the butcherbird with the habits of a fiend. As I stood under a tree one day, a silvereye dropped at my feet. I took it in my hand and, as its chest heaved up and down, I looked up into the tree from which it had fallen. In the lowest branch a butcherbird was sitting, staring down at me and the bird that he had dropped. A butcherbird would fit in a beer glass, but that stare stood my hair on end. And as it stared, the silvereye’s heart stopped beating.

Since then I’ve looked at many photos of butcherbirds, and none of them has a stare like that. The stare was that bird’s and that moment’s alone.

And then there is the kookaburra, the larrikin icon of Australia before Steve Irwin replaced it. Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, we used to sing. We have in the family a sequence of three photographs of a kookaburra perched in typical fashion on a fence. In the first you can see it has something large in its beak. In the second there is less of the thing. By the third, all that protrudes are a couple of webbed feet on scrawny legs. It’s a duckling, a couple of weeks old. If they’d shown that before the Movietone News, this country might have a different view of itself.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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