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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.
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