Sunday, November 17, 2013

My newfound interest in birds. Well, it's not exactly newfound; noticing birds has always been part of the silly romanticism that has driven my relationship with the landscape from a young age. I was obsessed with Enid Blyton's fanciful stories of how sparrows got their black bibs and blackbirds got their golden beaks. And when I was visiting my grandmother's house, I loved to leaf through a glossy coffee-table book on Australian birds. This is it:

I wish I knew what became of it after my grandmother moved into a home. I still have the other book I loved leafing through back then: the book of fairytales.

Anyway, I recently read a novel called Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield; here's my review on Goodreads. The book is about rooks, which are the cousins of crows and ravens. The Corvidae family are among the smartest birds; their brain-to-body ratio is about the same as dolphins and great apes, and they can use tools and solve problems. And Setterfield uses these facts to attribute a fanciful, primeval kind of intelligence and memory to rooks. She also weaves in their various roles in myths and folklore.

I was curious to see whether Australian crows, ravens, magpies and currawongs are from the same family as the European ones. Turns out currawongs and magpies are different: they are from the Cracticinae. Currawongs' eyes are yellow while corvids' are white; and their beaks curve down subtly at the tip. And it also turns out that we have quite a variety of corvids: the Little Crow (Corvus bennetti) and Little Raven (Corvus mellori); the Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides) and Forest Raven (Corvus tasmanicus). And apparently they have slightly different coloured sheens to their black feathers.

Honestly, though, I still think I would be hard pressed to tell the difference between any of these birds if I saw them. On the car trip down to Mallacoota, where I've just spent an idyllic week, I was noticing black birds pecking at roadkill, and wondering which ones they were.

Shortly after I finished reading Bellman and Black, I belatedly discovered a poll for Australia's Favourite Bird. I was so annoyed that I only discovered this after polling had closed, but I was happy that the winner was the Superb Fairy Wren, which is one of my favourite birds. When I was a Girl Guide I was in Blue Wren patrol, eventually rising to the rank of patrol leader. Recently I found my old patrol badge:

which I just photographed a second ago because I happened to have it in my desk organiser.

In Mallacoota, our Polish host Margaret told us to look out for "a grey bird that is called Trash" and would eat balls of meat. We all thought she was referring to a particular bird that showed up often enough for food to have been given a name, although Trash seemed like a strange name. We also thought it must be a kind of kookaburra if it ate meat.

When the bird showed up on our back deck, it did look tame, as though it was expecting food. Paulina tried to call it: "Trash! Trash!" but it didn't seem to respond to the name. Later, to much hilarity, we realised that Margaret, with her accent, had actually been saying "thrush", and had been referring to the Grey Shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica). For the rest of the trip, we continued to refer to the bird as Trash.

I knew that thrushes are known for their song because of a madrigal I sang in high school called 'The Nightingale' by Thomas Weelkes. ("The nightingale, the organ of delight/the nimble nimble nimble nimble lark/The blackbird and the thrush/And all the pretty choristers of flight/That chaunt their music notes on every bush/Let them no more contend who shall excel/The cuckoo is the bird that bears the bell".)

Here is British choir the Chanterelles doing probably my favourite performance of the song, at last year's International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales. I hope they gave out prizes for Choir Face, because let them no more contend who shall excel at that!

There was a pagoda-shaped bird feeder on the corner of our deck. You can see it at the edge of this picture I took:

We were well supplied with birdseed to feed the birds, and they came in droves, from tiny robins and sparrows to seagulls and magpies with their terrifying stabby beaks and gimlet-eyed velociraptor head-cocks. There were lots of colourful rosellas and rainbow lorikeets. Here is Camille feeding some King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis):

My time at Mallacoota was also soundtracked by some incredibly irritating bird calls. I called them 'car alarm birds' because they just went on and on like a forgotten car alarm. I began to stop noticing them after a while, but they were the first thing I noticed on waking and were a constant soundtrack. At one point I started singing my old "one, one-two one, one-two-three-two-one" choir warmup to their rhythm. Anyway, turns out these are Wonga Pigeons (Leucosarcia melanoleuca).

I occasionally saw the pigeons themselves coming for food, but it took ages to link them with the neverending calls.

I bludged away a pleasant afternoon last year reading Chaucer's Parliament of Foules: so many favourite passages but I liked the Duck's speech in particular:

‘Wel bourded!’ quod the doke, ‘by my hat!
That men shulde alwey loven, causeles,
Who can a reson finde or wit in that?
Daunceth he mury that is mirtheles?
Who shulde recche of that is reccheles?
Ye, quek!’ yit quod the doke, ful wel and faire,
‘There been mo sterres, god wot, than a paire!’

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