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Friday, October 28, 2011

24) Common Blackbird

Turdus merula

I shouldn’t like Blackbirds nearly as much as I do.  Like any Australian with an interest in native animals I’ve long ago been indoctrinated into an almost irrational hatred of any introduced species, and I’ve got few kind things to say about Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), Indian Mynas (Acridotheres tristis), or even the House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) that as a child I quite happily nominated as my favourite bird.  The accepted wisdom is that Australia’s native birds are under constant threat by more aggressive introduced birds, and I suppose that’s largely true – although such an argument conveniently overlooks the equally aggressive and invasive habits of native birds such as the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala, a type of honeyeater, and not to be confused with the Indian Myna despite the similar name and startlingly similar appearance).  The Australian hatred of introduced animals doesn’t end with birds: try to persuade an average Australian to eat a rabbit and you’ll find out just how deep the prejudice runs.  The fact that Australian native animals have, particularly since European settlement, suffered more at the hands of humans – and continue to do so – than other animals doesn’t prevent Australians from reviling those invasive species which previous generations of Australians brought to the country, often with the best intentions in the world.

More than any other introduced bird, the Blackbird has spread out of urban areas and into the Australian bush.  While introduced mammals – European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), Cats (Felis catus), Pigs (Sus scrofa), etcetera – are more closely associated in Australia with the bush than with cities and towns, for introduced birds the situation is the complete opposite: even if, somehow, a person didn’t realise that they were an urban area in Australia, they’d be able to deduce the nature of their surroundings based solely on the presence of Starlings, Mynas, and Sparrows.  The Blackbird, though, has successfully adapted to life away from humans – sometimes to an alarming extent: years ago I heard a Blackbird singing while I was walking with my father in the forests of south-western Tasmania, the wildest of Australian wildernesses.  When my father and I reported this to a ranger in the National Park through which we were hiking, the ranger didn’t believe us, which is probably understandable.

The singing of the Blackbird is a major part of its appeal, and goes a long way towards explaining why I and many other Australians give it a pass.  There can be no denying that it’s a beautiful song, and at this time of year, when the male Blackbirds are singing literally day and night, I like to turn off the TV and the radio and throw all the doors and windows open and drink in the sound.  As my housemate observed a few days ago when I pointed out the song to her, it sounds not unlike the song of an Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen), which is a sound universally beloved by Australians.  This spring seems to be particularly redolent with the singing of Blackbirds in Melbourne, and with huge numbers of Slugs and Snails (Gastropoda) in the city following on a very wet year, it’s probably going to be a particularly good breeding season for Blackbirds.

I wonder if, perhaps, it’s the breeding habits of Blackbirds that also help soften Australian attitudes to them: the received wisdom is that Indian Mynas, in particular, take nesting sites from Australian birds: Australian parrots, especially, make their nests in the hollows of trees, which also happens to be the kind of location favoured by Indian Mynas – although my own observations suggest that most Indian Mynas in Australia, being urban birds, actually nest in gaps and holes in the rooves of buildings, so I don’t know how much truth there is to the “nest competition” theory.  Still, regardless of that, Blackbirds build more traditional nests, layering and weaving sticks into compact bowls in the branches of a bush.  No competition there, then: no shortage of either sticks or bushes in Australia, notwithstanding the massive deforestation still occurring throughout the country.

For me, though, the love of Blackbirds is a much more personal affair.  My mother was born and raised in England, and half of my family is still in the UK in addition to a great many old friends of my parents who are so close that they may as well be family.  For as long as I can remember I’ve always half-felt that I want to be in England rather than Australia, and although over the course of my life English culture has changed so much, and so much for the worse, that I now want nothing to do with it, the country itself – the countryside, the landscape, the idea of the place – still has an extraordinary pull on me.  (Of course, whenever I’m in England I feel the same way about Australia: such is the unresolvable dilemma faced by those many of us with heritage in two countries.)

If the singing of the Australian Magpie is the unimpeachable sound of Australia, the singing of the Common Blackbird must surely hold the same status for England.  Forget the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), which to my ear is a bizarrely overpraised squawker and twitterer: the Blackbird is England’s true song-smith.  It was a kind of nostalgia for England which led the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of Victoria to introduce in the mid-nineteenth century Blackbirds to Melbourne, from whence they spread throughout south-eastern Australia; it’s not exactly nostalgia or homesickness that causes me to sigh wistfully at the song of the Blackbird, but rather a kind of awareness of the possibility of another life that I’m not living, a remembrance of the strange and barely experienced comforts of beech woods and Match of the Day and the cadences of the BBC news and the genteel chirping of small, dusky birds.

Until I lived in England in 2003 I always felt half English; experiencing first hand the awful insularity of contemporary English culture, the kind of insularity that can lead a university professor to not even know what the capital of Australia is, quickly disabused me of any notion that I could ever be, in my heart, anything other than Australian.  Yet still there’s a part of me that yearns for the far side of the world, and when the singing of a Blackbird heralds the turning of the seasons towards another fearsome Australian summer a part of me is, temporarily, impossibly, wonderfully, in both places at once.
Image sourced from

Thursday, October 27, 2011

23) Bengal Tiger

Panthera tigris tigris

This isn’t a post I wanted to write.  Usually I enjoy doing this blog but I’ve been procrastinating on writing this post for days even though from the moment it occurred to me I knew with a rare clarity what it was that I wanted to write about.

If you were paying attention to the news in the middle of last week you’ll probably be able to guess from the title alone what this post is going to be about.  On the other hand, news moved so quickly last week that the major, shocking story of one day may already have been forgotten.

A week ago, on the nineteenth of October, a man named Terry Thompson released from their cages fifty-six exotic animals that he kept on his farm in Muskingum County, Ohio, and then shot himself.  When the alarmed and frightened residents of Zanesville, a town near Thompson’s farm, started reporting sightings of such animals as Lions (Panthera leo) and Tigers (Panthera tigris) on their streets,  local police set about hunting the escaped animals, with orders to shoot to kill.  Ultimately, all but a single monkey were tracked down, and of the fifty-five animals found forty-nine were shot; only six animals were captured alive.  The dead animals included seventeen Lions, eighteen Bengal Tigers, two Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), six Black Bears (Ursus americanus), and two Wolves (Canis lupus).

The killing of the eighteen Bengal Tigers was most shocking of all.  The Bengal Tiger is not a species in itself but rather one of several extant Tiger subspecies.  As the name suggests it’s found around the south Asian subcontinent, in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan.  To say that it’s found in those countries, though, is tragically misleading: there are estimated to be fewer than 2500 Bengal Tigers remaining in the wild.  Even more appalling, though, is the fact that this number is enough to rank them as the most populous of all the Tiger subspecies.  On the website for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the reference page for the Tiger is highlighted by one simple, heartbreaking word: “Declining.”  Hearing that eighteen representatives of an animal so close to extinction had been killed in a single event was – and still is – shocking and appalling.

As terrible as the events in Muskingum County were, the killing of the animals was made all the more distressing by the nature of the images of the aftermath.  Not just the images themselves – though seeing scores of dead Lions and Tigers lying scattered about the Ohio grass was bad enough – but the nature of the images, the quality of them: all the footage shown on television and online of the aftermath of the shootings was dark and grainy, blurry almost to the point of being indistinct.  It made what was already a horrifying story seem even more trangressive, even more of an outrage, suggesting that the shooting spree was so shameful that its aftermath could only be filmed in secret.  The footage had something of the visceral haziness of a half-remembered nightmare.

For me it was jarring to hear that it had been specifically Bengal Tigers that had been killed in the greatest numbers.  I rarely think about Bengal Tigers these days, but when I was a child they were one of the first animals I ever fell in love with.  I adored Tigers back then, as I think all children do; furthermore I had a particular and obtuse interest in anything unusual or little-known or just difficult to find out about: in primary school I once wrote an assignment about Cicadas (Cicadidae) not just despite the fact that the school library contained no books about them, but because of that fact.  I barely knew what a Bengal Tiger was when I was a child, but neither did anybody else as far as I was aware so I was hooked.  Knowing now that they are so close to extinction upsets me in ways that I’m barely able to express; in addition to that, knowing that eighteen of them have been needlessly killed distresses me deeply.

Let me say right now that I don’t blame the police in Muskingum County.  I can’t imagine that there are many small-town police stations in Ohio which are equipped with tranquiliser guns, let alone the personnel trained to use them.  From what I understand of the situation night was beginning to fall, and the police were quite rightly concerned for the welfare of the townspeople they were sworn to protect.  That is as it should be.  The animals didn’t need to die, but that is not the fault of the police.  The animals should never have been released from their cages; Terry Thompson is to blame for that.  They should never have been in cages on someone’s private property in rural Ohio in the first place; the Ohio state legislature is to blame for that.  The animals’ deaths were needless not because there wasn’t, on the evening of the nineteenth of October, a pressing need to deal with them, but because they oughtn’t to have been in such a position that they needed to be dealt with in the first place.

For all that it dominated news coverage last Wednesday, the story of the killing of Terry Thompson’s menagerie soon vanished, replaced by a much bigger story: the capture and death in Libya of Moamar Gaddafi.  That story came out of the blue as much as the events in Muskingum County had two days earlier, and both events evoked in many people – certainly in me – mixed feelings.  While the killing of the animals in Ohio was an isolated event from a place which otherwise would have remained utterly unknown, however, the death of Gaddafi was the unexpected culmination of long series of horrifying events: for months – for years, decades – the news from Libya has been a cavalcade of outrages and brutally oppressive violence.  So why is it that the killing of forty-nine exotic animals is the story that continues to haunt me?

I’ve long been susceptible to stories about animal suffering.  To name just one example, when, in university, I was introduced to William Maxwell’s wonderful novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, it was the fate of the dog in that story that really grieved me, despite the novel being about such potent human themes as jealousy, murder, and family tragedy.  I can’t say whether I’ve always been inclined to feel more touched by the misfortunes of animals than those of humans because I think that it’s a tendency that has grown over time.  It’s not something that I’m proud of and I recognise that it’s wrong to shed more tears over dead animals than dead people, but to our constant vexation emotions are beyond rationality.

Animals are, undoubtedly, easier to get along with than humans, not because humans are unpleasant – whatever else I may be, I’m certainly no misanthrope – but because animals are generally easier to predict and to understand than humans.  Cats (Felidae) have codes of behaviour among themselves that are in their own way as delicate as those of humans, but the consequences of a human transgressing a cat’s sense of propriety are not nearly as calamitous as would be the effects of behaving in a similarly tactless manner to another human.  A Cat will scratch a human, hiss and run away, but will quickly forgive and forget the offence.  Relationships between humans are much more delicate, and much more complicated.  For those of us with a tendency towards shyness the company of animals can come as a great relief, an opportunity to truly relax in the presence of another being.  That our relationships with other animals can never offer even a fraction of the rewards of our relationships with our fellow humans can sometimes seem like an acceptable sacrifice – at least for a little while.

All of which is, I think, why I react so strongly to stories of animal suffering.  There’s undoubtedly a paternalistic element too: pity for those poor ignorant creatures who find themselves victims of human whim and caprice.  There’s innate in most people, I think – I hope – a tendency towards sympathy for the least powerless among us.  That powerlessness – and consequently that sympathy – is magnified tenfold for animals.

But being able to explain it doesn’t make it right.  For a day the story of the animal shootings in Muskingum County was inescapable, but soon enough the media moved on.  Outside Ohio, the wider world moved on too.  Terry Thompson was mentioned in all the accounts of the story – but only as background information: his time in jail, anecdotes of his disregard for the animals he kept.  For all the media noise surrounding the shooting of the animals, though, one shot stayed quieter than all the others:  the shot that Terry Thompson inflicted upon himself.  The total number of animals killed on the nineteenth of October in Muskingum County, Ohio, was in fact not forty-nine, but fifty.  Among them were seventeen Lions, eighteen Bengal Tigers, two Grizzly Bears, six Black Bears, and two Wolves, and one Human (Homo sapiens).

Image sourced from

Monday, October 17, 2011

22) Horse


A couple of weeks ago I went to see the recently released Werner Herzog documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  It’s probably fair to say that I still haven’t quite recovered.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about the Chauvet Cave, in the Ard├Ęche region of France.  The cave was discovered and explored in 1994, but that wasn’t the first time that humans had ventured into it: the three people who discovered it in 1994 found within it an extraordinary array of cave paintings, which were subsequently dated to around 30,000 years ago – making them the oldest known cave paintings in the world.

Before seeing Herzog’s film I’d been aware of the cave, and of the paintings – but only in the dimmest way: when I first read about the film, in the New York Review of Books earlier this year, I immediately remembered having heard about the cave at some stage in the past; yet prior to reading that article, if anyone had mentioned the Chauvet Cave to me by name, or if anyone had shown me a photograph of any of the paintings within it, I would have struggled to know what they were talking about.

I’m bad at keeping up with the news.  Even with the best intentions in the world, newspapers in my house go unopened, and online articles go unread, and whenever I’m with friends I’m amazed by the depth and breadth of their knowledge about the world.  I want to know more than I do, and perhaps I’m being hard on myself, but when it comes to the hard work of actually finding out about the world I get too easily distracted.  I’m a terrible procrastinator.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is, more than anything else, a testament to the constant, unending curiosity of human beings.  In many ways the focus is not so much on the paintings themselves as on those people now seeking to understand the paintings, and to understand their provenance and meaning.  These people are not just the various scientists and experts Herzog interviews, both those directly involved in studying the paintings and those engaged in tangential, but (sometimes tenuously) related fields, but also Herzog himself: the constant soundtrack of the film is not so much Ernst Reijseger’s keening music, as Herzog’s endless questioning and speculation and wonder.  How much you get out of the film may depend to a great extent on how much you buy into his occasionally esoteric lines of inquiry.

Herzog’s narration and interviews are something of a distraction in the film, actually, if a welcome one in that they’re of a piece with a film which is fundamentally about the human quest to understand the world around us.  The real reason to see the film – as it should be, and as Herzog certainly realises – is to get a chance to see the extraordinary paintings up close, and in great detail and on a large scale.

Even having read about the film, I hadn’t realised before seeing it just how extensive the paintings in the cave are.  One shot in particular stands out in my memory, a long shot which shows – almost casually – a narrow band of paintings on a wall stretching the entire length of one enormous cavern.  I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that the paintings are, in effect, very much like the murals we might see inside a church, or on an art gallery wall.

The most surprising of the paintings are those that depict animals that we now associate intractably with Africa: rhinoceroses (Rhinocerotidae) lions (Felidae); hyenas (Hyaenidae).  Or rather, their ancient ancestors, though given the sense of wonder at seeing such creatures depicted on the wall of a cave in southern France the difference is negligible.  Still, for all the astonishment and delight at seeing such animals depicted, the paintings that most captivated me – and clearly most captivated Herzog, too, given how often he returns to them – are those of horses.  It’s not hard to see why: the horse paintings are beautiful, and in one image in particular, of a group of horse heads arrayed one in front of the other, there’s a palpable tenderness which anybody who’s ever seen horses nuzzling against each-other will surely recognise.  In some way the horse paintings are the ones that seem most vivid, and most contemporary.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been going every few years to London to visit relatives and family friends.  I’m fortunate enough to know a couple, old friends of my parents, who live only a few minutes’ walk from the British Museum, and though I’m generally not particularly excited by ancient history I love going to the British Museum every chance I get.

The British Museum contains one artefact in particular which is probably my favourite object in the entire world.  In the section of the museum dedicated to Assyrian artefacts there are a number of large statues which used to stand at the entrance to a royal palace.  The statues are extraordinary: ceiling-high, they depict fantastic creatures with the legs of lions, the wings of birds, and human heads with long, elaborately carved beards.  Yet for all that they’re collectively a breathtaking representation of human imagination and human endeavour, it’s not the statues which I so adore.

At the base of one of the statues, inconspicuous if it wasn’t for the Perspex box which carefully encases it, is a crudely scratched board game.  The game is one which was apparently played in ancient Mesopotamia for thousands of years.  The board itself is unremarkable as an object – but as an example of an essential humanity, as a representation of the commonality of human experience and human emotion over vast distances of time, it’s better than anything I’ve ever seen.

Except, perhaps the paintings in the Chauvet Caves.  Of course I’ve never seen those in person, and I never will – but that wasn’t the reason why seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams moved me to tears on more than one occasion.  I don’t mind that I won’t ever get a chance to see those extraordinary paintings myself: there’s simply so much extraordinary stuff in the world that if you started to consider how much you’ll never get a chance to see or experience in your lifetime you’d become paralysed by despair.  No, the reason I was so moved by the paintings in the Chauvet Caves – the reason I’m so moved by that hastily made board game at the base of an ancient and ferociously imposing statue – is that they depict with great elegance and eloquence how, despite differences in culture, despite difference in belief systems, despite enormous differences in almost every aspect of our daily lives, humans, essentially, haven’t changed.  I mean that in a good way: there’s a deep bedrock of essential humanness which clearly underlies us as a species, throughout the entire course of our history.  Those guards in ancient Assyria who carved out a game to play one night weren’t just representatives of an alien and unknowable civilisation: they were two humans who got bored at work and came up with a way to try to pass the time.  Those painters in a cave in what’s now France weren’t naked savages eking out a meagre existence: they were artists, observers, people who thought deeply about the world around them, and took great pride and care in their attempts to depict that world.  We’ll never know what they were thinking when they painted those horses, and all those other animals, any more than we can ever know what any human besides ourselves is thinking – but we can recognise, clearly, vividly, and to our great enrichment, individuals who saw the world with our own eyes, and interpreted it with our own imagination.  We can say, truly: we understand them – and, more significantly, they would understand us.
Image sourced from

Friday, October 14, 2011

21) Laughing Kookaburra

Dacelo novaeguineae

Last Saturday morning, quite unexpectedly, I was woken by the sound of Kookaburras laughing.  There are a handful of bird sounds – the warbling songs of Magpies (Cracticus tibicen), the despairing wails of Ravens (Corvus coronoides) – that all Australians instantly recognise, and the laughter of a Kookaburra is foremost among them.  Even if, like the birds that woke me last weekend, the laughter never gets into full flight, the sound is unmistakable.  But Kookaburras are so closely associated with the bush, with eucalypts and forests and with getting out of the city, that hearing them in an urban setting is always a surprise.  In fact they’ve adapted fairly readily to Australia’s typically well-greened cities, but even so, hearing the Kookaburras yesterday morning in– at least three of them, in my neighbour’s back-garden in inner-city Melbourne – was so incongruous that it jolted me instantly out of bed.  Would that I could wake in such a way every morning. 

Like many bird calls, a Kookaburra’s laugh helps to establish territory, and at this time of year when birds in Australia are all getting ready to begin breeding there’s a lot of singing and calling and squabbling going on in the trees.  Laughing Kookaburras are, famously, the largest of the Kingfishers (Order Coraciiformes).  They may also be the drabbest of the Kingfishers, being predominantly brown and cream in colour, though the males do display some characteristic Kingfisher blue at the base of their tail and on their wings.  (A second species of Kookaburra, the Blue-winged Kookaburra, found in northern Australia and in Papua New Guinea, is not surprisingly more colourful.)  Australia is graced by a number of Kingfisher species, distributed across a range of habitats in all corners of the country, and in general their size and colouration is all so much more of a kind with what most people would imagine when they think of a Kingfisher that it’s strange to think of the Laughing Kookaburra as being among their kin – yet, colour and size aside, in appearance the Laughing Kookaburra could clearly not be any other kind of bird.  Kingfishers have perhaps the most characteristic silhouette of all birds and the Laughing Kookaburra shares that basic shape: no legs to speak of, small feet, a squat body, and a very large block-shaped head with a long, straight, heavy beak. 

Although we associate Kingfishers with rivers and with the catching of fish, there are many species of Kingfisher which are found in relatively dry areas and which feed on non-aquatic animals.  There are several such species in Australia, and the Laughing Kookaburra is foremost among them: I think perhaps one of the first animal facts that I ever learned as a child was that Kookaburras eat snakes.  They eat lizards, too, and even small mammals, perching on a branch and watching the ground intently until something edible passes beneath. 

As far as I’m aware, though, the Laughing Kookaburra is the only Kingfisher in the world which is famous for its call: a steadily growing cascade of hysterical laughter which is so familiar that I probably don’t even need to describe it.  Laughing Kookaburras often call communally, families of the birds lining up on a branch and all chorusing together, with one bird starting and the others quickly joining in. 

It must have been a disconcerting sound for the first Europeans, far from home and in an unfamiliar and difficult environment.  I can imagine that it may even have frightened them: the laughter of a Kookaburra is so maniacal that if you had absolutely no idea what it was I think it would be easy to be spooked by it.  The term “laughing” is accurate to the sound, but it’s not a kind laugh.  It’s mocking, perhaps even cruel. 

Though of course it’s neither of those things, because it’s just the sound of a bird marking out its territory for the benefit of others of its species.  Yet we humans inevitably filter the world through our own experience, and the call of a Laughing Kookaburra really does sound startlingly like laughter.  When we describe an animal’s behaviour in such specifically human terms, though, I can’t help but feel that we deny the animal a bit of agency: we deny it a little bit of itself. 

Perhaps that’s unavoidable, though.  After all, how else are we to understand an animal, if not by comparing it to ourselves?  We can try to imagine how an animal might perceive the world, but the fact that we have language and they do not presents a fundamental obstacle to trying to place ourselves into an animal’s mind.  Humans, I think, find it profoundly difficult to deliberately think without language, so much so that we tend to intimately associate consciousness with language.  But we too easily forget that language is in fact only a small part of our consciousness: that every minute of the day our minds are filled with innumerable thoughts which go unexpressed in words. 

Of course, this is a difficult thing to try to explain in words, which is the whole crux of the problem folded back on itself.  So let me give an example: one winter’s night a few years ago I was playing a game of touch football, and my team was defending close to our try-line.  I was positioned on the wing, and our opponents tried to get past me by throwing a long pass to their own winger, who was standing wider than me. 

Unfortunately for them, I was close enough to the ball to intercept it when it was passed, and I did so, and I ran away and scored at the other end of the field.  The peculiar thing, though, was that after the game had finished I could vividly recall my thought processes before I caught the ball.  Intercepting a pass is a risky move: you could drop the ball (not unlikely, for me), thus giving the other team even more possession; or even worse, you could miss the ball altogether, letting the other team score an easy try.  After the game was finished – and even to this day – I could recall the internal debate that occurred in my mind, the meticulous weighing up of the pros and cons of trying to catch the ball, the lengthy internal dialogue I’d had with myself before deciding, ultimately, to take the risk. 

Clearly, though, this did not in fact happen.  There was no discussion, no debate, no careful consideration of the situation before me: there simply wasn’t time.  The ball was flashing past me through the air, and I had only a fraction of a second to make my decision.  Yet the memory of my internal debate is absolutely real to me: even knowing that logically it cannot have been so, I cannot recall the situation any other way.  And, significantly, when I remember the moment, I remember it in words: I can recall the questions I asked myself, the questions that never actually existed.  My mind has automatically taken an instant of non-verbal decision making, and retrofitted language into it. 

It is profoundly difficult for us to imagine a consciousness without language, despite the fact that it is an integral part of our own minds.  I think that that is a major part of why humans have always been so reluctant to deny consciousness to other animals: they cannot speak, therefore they cannot think.  They cannot express themselves in words, therefore they cannot possibly have any self-awareness.  Yet if anything, I think that language is an obstacle to self-awareness: by applying it to everything, we obscure that great part of our mind which doesn’t rely upon it.  And if we can’t even imagine our own minds without language, how can we imagine the minds of other animals

 The Laughing Kookaburra is not actually laughing.  We just make it so in our own minds.  I wonder, then, what it makes of us when, perched on a tree, watching us gathered below, it hears us erupt in laughter.

Image sourced from