June 2008

The Nation Reviewed

The charm of a charm

By Ashley Hay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Early one May morning, on the edge of Brisbane's Mt Coo-tha, a hundred people gather in a car park. The air is sharp, the light clear, and there are probably birds muttering in the trees overhead. Most of the people here would notice this. They're aviculturists or bird-keepers, delegates of the Third International Finch and Seedeater Convention, participants on a daylong tour of six aviaries in and near this city, and self-confessed finch-fanciers. While I'm here to make my first acquaintance with these birds and their devotees, the others are here to compare notes, exchange tips, catch up. We stick our names to our shirts, pile onto our buses, and head off.

The word ‘aviculturist' was coined in 1894, in the first issue of the British-based Avicultural Magazine, and the popularity of bird-keeping as a pastime saw a surge in the number of coops and roosts and cages across Australia in the early twentieth century. At first, exotic birds could be shipped in from anywhere, and endemic birds could be caught and trapped in the wild. Then, in 1962, Australia's avian imports ceased. Which means, as the convention's convenor and current president of the Queensland Finch Society (QFS), Gary Fitt, explains, that Australia's aviculturists have had to maintain populations of many species by focusing on their breeding requirements. "I've been to big bird sales in Holland with hundreds of exotic finches on sale for hardly any money - all imported straight from Africa, wild-caught."

Due to the threat of avian flu, imports to Europe were suspended two years ago. "But few keepers there had put much effort into breeding because they could always get another bird. Now they're finding a lot of species are disappearing and only a few people can breed them, whereas we've done well to establish avicultural populations of many exotics. The problem is that Australian aviary populations of some species are now very weak genetically. So we want to resurrect the issue of legal imports for finches - just for small numbers of select species where a genetic boost would be beneficial."

A birdman from age eight, Fitt completed a science degree and was offered two honours projects: one on birds, the other on flies. He took the flies, and followed insects through to his current position as the CSIRO's deputy chief of entomology. But he still has 300 birds in his backyard, from 22 different species - aviculture, he says, keeps him sane. His favourite is the pictorella finch. Some people breed birds to sell, he says; some people have backyard aviaries and want to learn a bit about what they're keeping. "And then there's a small group who are really dedicated and spend a lot of their time and money providing the best for their birds ... I think I'm in the last group now."

The buses weave through Brisbane, slowing in front of a suburban blond-brick house whose frontage betrays nothing of the passion pursued in its backyard. Barry Pollock's specialty is the Gouldian finch, a good place to start any investigation of Australian finch lore given the bird's stunning looks, its prevalence and popularity among breeders, and its critical status in the wild. At 13 to 14 centimetres long, the Gouldian looks like an escapee from a child's colouring page: red head, purple chest, green back, yellow belly and an incandescent aquamarine colour heading down towards a black tail. Even if it is, as Fitt jokes, "common as mud in aviculture", its brilliance can make even those engaged daily with birds coo. "Oh, you're beautiful, aren't you?" says one visitor, kissing the air as a finch puffs and preens.

"Hold them up in the sun," says Pollock, "and you get a better colour." He picks up the display cage for one of his prize-winning birds - he won the QFS Champion Pair earlier this year, but he's also interested in colour mutations that can produce Gouldians with different-tinted heads, breasts, backs, or even predominantly blue plumage - and tilts it toward the light. The feathers shimmer as if they were illuminated from within. He'd like to tackle another species - he got 120 Gouldians from 18 breeding pairs last year - but says he doesn't have time to do it properly.

The story of the Gouldian in its natural habitat is another thing altogether. Originally found from Cape York to Western Australia, the bird has been estimated to number as few as 2500 in the wild. Now, thanks largely to the enthusiasm of one aviculturist, Mike Fidler, the Gouldian Finch Recovery Project is underway in the Kimberley. With support from hundreds of bird aficionados, the program's team of research scientists and visiting volunteers is working towards understanding how many Gouldians remain, precisely why they're in decline - it's not mites, or predators, it transpires, but rather preferential grazing by cattle and a massively altered fire regime - and remedying the problem. From a base at Mornington Station, and in partnership with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and 13 other Kimberley properties, land is being emptied of stock and massive wildfires are being replaced with a mosaic of much smaller burns, carefully controlled. "What's exciting is that the finch population is going up in the areas we're managing," says Fidler. "What's not exciting is that it's going down in areas we're not managing."

Nineteen finch species are endemic to Australia. The QFS also supports a recovery program for the black-throated finch, around Townsville; an African project run by the Rare Finch Conservation Group; and a local initiative to save the green avadavat, or green strawberry, from India. "There are only 52 green strawberries left here," says Fitt, "and no prospect of getting new birds from the wild. Australia's about the only country where there's any captive population. This program is trying to get the people who have those birds to co-operate to save them."

The buses visit walk-through aviaries where birds' wings whirr overhead; aviaries that separate birds into pairs, into different stages of development, into different species; and aviaries where everything is in together: budgerigars, canaries, parrots, finches, doves. Delegates discuss notable specimens (a rare purple grenadier elicits gasps); accommodation ("quite a steep pitch he's got on that roof", "stone chips on the floor - that's a good idea"); vegetation ("they can get through a chilli plant in a week", "best roses I ever saw were in a finch cage - they kept those bushes absolutely clean of bugs"); and food. Where Pollock feeds his flock ratios of different seeds and fresh Johnson and panic grass collected every Sunday, some make a mash of peas, carrots, corn and rice, and some make an endless supply of Madeira cake. "We should put the banana peels aside for the parrot people who want them for their mealworms," says someone over lunch.

Behind all the talk is a backdrop of colour, movement and unmitigated beauty. Even the mundane accessories of breeding - the bird boxes, the wire, the bunches of dried grass - look like sculptural arrangements, and the birds chirrup and soar as if they were constantly trying to arrange themselves in an elusive pattern. It's like standing inside a mobile and luminous kaleidoscope.

In the evening, the convention will open its program of international and domestic speakers, and the trade exhibitors will ply bird nets, literature (Just Finches, Finch News, Australian Birdkeeper), bags of seed and tubs of live crickets (small, medium or large). A grid of 48 cages will show a selection of species - the red star and red strawberry, the fawn Bengalese, the alarmingly named cut-throat, the zebra, the Cuban, Fitt's pictorella - separated like daubs on an artist's palette. But as the buses travel on, conversations race through swaps and suggestions and avian anecdotes. The tour's leader begins a couple of quizzes, and delegates produce the number of bird species globally (more than 9700), the most common wild finches (the red-billed quelea, the European sparrow), and whether birds have a sense of smell (they don't) without hesitation. But no one knows the collective noun for finches.

"It's a charm," she says, and more than one of us jots it down for memory. It seems so entirely appropriate.

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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