A couple of weeks ago a Willie Wagtail moved into my back garden. With winter having just started I haven’t been spending much time in the garden lately, so I’ve only seen the Willie Wagtail once when, by way of an introduction, it skittered briefly along the bricks in the courtyard adjoining my sitting-room, but since it arrived I’ve heard it on numerous occasions: I’ll be at the back of the house fixing a meal or putting on some laundry and its bell-like song or, more often, its chattering, scolding alarm call will come piercing through the thin, uninsulated walls of the old weatherboard cottage I rent.
The Willie Wagtail is one of the most popular and most familiar of Australian birds. It’s found in every inch of the country except a couple of spots in the north and in Tasmania: if you’re in Australia and you live near trees, you probably live near a Willie Wagtail. A couple of months ago I saw one skipping and flitting across the backs of the empty seats at AAMI Park, Melbourne’s new rectangular stadium, before a game of Rugby Union. The Willie Wagtail is one of that select group of Australian birds which can be called survivors – or, more than survivors, adapters: Willie Wagtails are apparently content to make themselves at home right alongside us humans. I don’t know where they place in the bird intelligence ranks but they give off an aura of canny smarts. That one in the stadium must have been onto a good thing, with all the insects that are attracted to the floodlights; the only time it looked unsure of itself was when the pre-match fireworks started, but even then its panic only lasted a few moments before it flew swiftly and strongly over the stands and out of danger. I suspect many Australians see in the Willie Wagtail traits that we often like to attribute to our own national character: a no-nonsense attitude, a healthy disrespect of authority, self-reliance and a willingness to just get on with life.
As with so many Australian birds, the name is a misnomer. There are a handful of genuine wagtail species in Australia, although only one of them, the Richard’s Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae) is at all common, but as a group they’re more familiar to people who live in the northern hemisphere. The Willie Wagtail is in fact a fantail, and if you’re Australian and, like most Australians, you live along the eastern seaboard, you’ll probably have seen one of its close relatives, the Grey Fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). Making this distinction between wagtails and fantails may sound like splitting hairs and in fact in terms of behaviour the wagtails and the fantails aren’t so dissimilar. They’re both characterised by the incessant movement of their tails, behaviour which we don’t yet fully understand but which may serve to flush out the insects upon which they feed. It’s an up-and-down movement for the wagtails and side-to-side for the fantails, but the effect’s the same; not just on the insects, but on us, too: the constant movement gives the birds the appearance of a particular kind of fussy business which we find particularly endearing in wild animals; in part, I suspect, because their lives mean so little to us. It’s always amusing to see somebody or something making such a big deal over what seem to us such small stakes, and it’s hard not to imagine as some kind of cartoon the life of a small, slightly stroppy bird which never appears to be in any danger.
Aside from that one brief moment of panic for the bird in the stadium, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Willie Wagtail which didn’t give the appearance of being in complete control of its life. One of their most endearing qualities – and again, one we’d all like to ascribe to ourselves – is their apparent fearlessness: I think everyone who’s encountered a Willie Wagtail has been chased by a Willie Wagtail. When I was growing up in Canberra they used to sometimes hover above my head in nesting season, claws outstretched and chattering ten-to-the-dozen, and the sight of such a tiny bird (they’re only around 20 centimetres long, and about half of that is tail) punching above its weight was impressive but also, frankly, absurd. When I was a kid it certainly made an amusing counterpoint to the genuinely terrifying swooping of the Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen) that happened at the same time of year. (Ask anyone who’s lived in a heavily-birded part of Australia about springtime, and it’s likely that at some stage they’ll use the phrase “swooping season”.)
Recently the beloved Australian actor Bill Hunter died. It may be crass of me to suggest it, but it seems to me that the Willie Wagtail is something of an avian Bill Hunter: with those stern white eyebrows and that grumpy chattering the bird has a surface gruffness, but somehow that gruffness only endears it to us all the more. We all like Willie Wagtails and I think we want them to like us, too, which is perhaps why we’re so delighted when they choose to make their homes near ours. And just occasionally their chattering gives way to their lovely, lilting song, a very brief song, and it seems that if not even a Willie Wagtail can find anything to be upset about, it must be a peaceful day indeed.
Image sourced from http://www.waterwatchadelaide.net.au/