Joint winner of the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival/Blurb Inc Blog-to-Book Challenge.
"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Monday, November 21, 2011

27) Slug & Snail


From my bedroom window I can see the washing on the line: a white shirt stretched out, arms wide, like the ghost of a human torso; towels hanging stiff in their dryness; sheets wrapped around and around the line by the wind.  Night is starting to fall, and the wind is only growing stronger, and the darkness in the sky is not just from the fading sunlight: the rain radar on the Bureau of Meteorology’s website shows a thick angry stormfront galloping towards Melbourne from the west, jagged lines of colour changing in bands from almost white through pale blue and deep marine into orange and red at the storm’s heart – the Bureau’s colour code for light; heavy; heaviest. 

It’s been coming all day.  The last week has been humid, unbearably so by Melbourne’s standards, and the city has sometimes seemed to be auditioning for a place in the tropics: sweltering beneath greasy cloud-cover, surrendering in the afternoon or evening to raging, sky-splitting, road-drowning electrical storms.  It’s La Niña, the news tells us, referring to the fabled sibling and mirror of the El Niño weather pattern which for so much of the last decade has steadily ground Australia down beneath its dry, hot feet.  El Niño’s off tormenting somebody else now, and Australia is getting wet for a change.

With the dampness of La Niña come the gastropods: slugs and snails, members of phylum Mollusca, relatives to Oysters and Mussells (Class Bivalvia).  They’re teeming, they must be in their thousands in my back garden alone: with darkness descending I switch on the lights over the garden and slip on some shoes and take the laundry bag out to retrieve my long-dry washing before the storm arrives.  As I do so I step carefully, watching where I place my feet on the almost overgrown bricks in my back garden.  Weeds, too, have thrived in this weather, and amid the grasses and sundry other unwelcome plants that I can’t name the slugs and snails are leading their lives, inching from leaf to leaf along self-made tracks of glistening mucous.  The unmistakable crunch of a snail underfoot brings a sharp jolt of mixed emotions to someone such as myself who goes out of his way to avoid killing animals unnecessarily: horror at the tiny life suddenly extinguished; guilt at my own heavy-footedness; a peculiar lightness of heart from realising that the incident was unavoidable.  Stepping on slugs in worse, and truth be told the only reason I bother putting on shoes before going into the garden is to save myself the horrid sensation of slugs popping underfoot.  The worst experiences of all, of course, belong to the slugs and snails themselves.  How horrid, how horrifying, to think that life can so suddenly and so unwittingly be ended.

At night they come under the doors, they come through the cracks in the walls and the holes in the floor.  I cook dinner for myself most nights, so there’s always a lot of washing-up to do in my kitchen, and sometimes – often – I’ll come into the kitchen in the bright light of morning to find the tell-tale silvery trail from a slug or a snail tracing a meandering path across a chopping board or a plate, or across the lip of the sink where the water splashes and pools.

At the start of this year I read Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s fascinating and extraordinary book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.  The title comes from an incident in which the author, bedridden and almost paralysed by a mysterious and terrifying illness, is lying awake late at night and hears, in the profound stillness of the friend’s house in which she is recuperating, the infinitesimal sound of a snail which had been transported by the friend with a bunch of wild violets from a nearby wood rasping its teeth over the leaves of that violet, devouring the foliage.  A couple of weeks ago, late at night, I came across a slug on the floor of my laundry.  It was chewing on the body of a dead fly which I’d noticed the day before.  The act was unmistakable: the husk of the insect bobbing and swaying, half of its head engulfed by the head of the slug.  Curious and hopeful, I knelt down beside the slug to try to hear it chewing – an action on my part to which the slug responded, not surprisingly, by retracting its eye-stalks and ceasing all movement; by going into its shell, as we’d say, except that slugs have long since abandoned the shells carried by their near relatives, the snails.  When you don’t have a protective shell extreme caution is your best defence: I retreated, and left the slug alone to its meal, and I had to wait in stillness for several minutes before it stretched itself out again, satisfied that the danger had passed, and resumed its meal.

A couple of days ago, in the long tail of yet another storm, I was doing the washing-up in my kitchen.  It was well after dark but the house was warm and stuffy from the heat of the day so I’d left all the doors and windows open, and the curtains and blinds, too, the better to allow the movement of fresh air through the house.  As I finished the washing-up I noticed a snail creeping across the window – but the outside of the window: as it traversed the flat pane I was able to watch its underside, I was able to see what is normally obscured.

The word gastropod means “stomach-foot”, and a snail’s underside, that slick surface upon which it slides, is called its foot.  As I leaned close to the window, with the snail ignorant of my presence in a position effectively below it and perfectly framed against the black background of night, I was able to observe the endless wave of muscular contractions which propelled the animal forward upon its bed of mucous: one contraction after another, running the entire length of its foot, like ripples on a pond forever disturbed.

Across the flat, smooth expanse of the window the snail moved with surprising speed.  Often it would come across some invisible speck, some microscopic patch of something, and its mouth would open wide: a dark hole on the direct underside of its head, a chasm which worked vigorously over whatever unknowable foodstuff the snail had come across before closing again as the animal moved on.  On other occasions, more subtly, the snail drank: as its head slid over a small droplet of water the water disappeared, not merely giving way beneath the snail’s weight but visibly sucked, dragged towards the snail’s head.  At least once I saw the snail change course abruptly when it sensed water: one of the small antennae beneath its eye-stalks touched a droplet and the animal jack-knifed towards the water.

Twice the snail approached tiny moths (Order Lepidoptera): I wondered if it might consume them, too, but each time the moths flew away, vanishing white-bodied into the night.  It seemed that they didn’t see the snail approaching: they fled only when the snail bumped up against their antennae.

I watched the snail until it reached the bottom of the window pane.  All this time it had been creeping downwards, down the length of the window, and I wanted to see what it would do when it could no longer go in the direction it had been going in; but it didn’t do anything.  It just stopped.  Or perhaps it continued, eventually; but when it didn’t react instantly to the change in topography I stopped watching it.  I had other things to do – probably nothing worthwhile.  Probably just watching television or going online.  Eventually I shut the curtains, and went to bed, and the rain fell in the long restful aftermath of the storm, and in the morning, if I’d gone out to look, if I’d been able to face up to my constant embarrassment at failing to weed the garden, I probably would have found across every brick and leaf and fence-post the shining silver tracks of the thousands of slugs and snails of all sizes with which I share my living space in this wet, humid year.

 Slug image sourced from / Snail image sourced from

Monday, November 14, 2011

26) Red-rumped Parrot & Intermediate Egret

Psephotus haematonotus & Ardea intermedia

When I started this blog I had dreams of travelling the world, seeing exotic animals and writing about them.  I even fantasised that one day somebody might be willing to pay me to do it.  Who knows, maybe they will – even in this day and age, breaking into the writing business is a long, slow, painstaking process.  In the meantime, by necessity, most of the animals I’ve written about for this blog have been observed in the urban environment, within the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne where I live.

When it comes to cities, I don’t think we Australians realise how lucky we are.  A few weeks ago I was talking to my mother, who still lives in my hometown of Canberra, and she expressed surprise that I could see the stars even in the middle of Melbourne.  In fact at that time, at the start of the Southern Hemisphere spring, I was going to bed every night and gazing out at Orion’s belt splayed across the night sky above my back garden, outside my bedroom window.  I think we forget that most large cities in the world don’t afford such delights.  Likewise, it can be easy to overlook the amount of wildlife that lives in our very midst – whether because we haven’t trained ourselves to observe the world, or because we’re too preoccupied to properly notice our surroundings.

Last week I was riding through the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  It was around 5:30 in the afternoon and the evening rush-hour was already starting.  I was riding in the bike lane along Victoria Crescent, a sweeping curve of a street whose shape is dictated by the nearby Yarra River.  As always when I’m riding on the road, even one with a separate bike lane, I felt compelled to ride as fast as I could so as to avoid holding up traffic as much as possible, and because the rush-hour had started and because Victoria Crescent is a popular thoroughfare for people trying to avoid the heavier traffic on larger roads there was a constant stream of cars rushing past me in either direction.  I’ve had too many close-calls on my bicycle not to pay careful attention to the cars around me so even in my haste I was being watchful of my surroundings, and as I approached a plane tree on the side of the road ahead of me I noticed a sudden flash of movement and bright colour: it was a male Red-rumped Parrot, diving head-first into the hollow formed by the removal of one of the tree’s branches.

Even among the myriad parrots of Australia, I’ve always regarded Red-rumped Parrots have as exotic.  I think the reason for this is that unlike the many other parrots that I grew up with in Canberra – Australian King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis), Crimson and Eastern Rosellas (Platycercus elegans and P. eximius), Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita), Gang-gang Cockatoos (Callocephalon fimbriatum), Galahs (Eolophus roseicapillus) – Red-rumped Parrots tended to stay away from people’s houses.  They’re not at all uncommon – they’re probably the most common small parrot in Australia’s cities – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in somebody’s back garden.  They’re perfectly happy to live in urban environments – just not actually amongst buildings.  They hedge their bets, so to speak: they like living in parks and woodland and remnant bush.

When I was a child I called them by their colloquial name, “grass parrots”, because I saw them most often grazing in the grass by the side of Canberra’s extensive bike paths.  “Red-rumped Parrot” is an accurate name as far as it goes because when the males of the species fly away the broad flare of red across the base of the bird’s tail is unavoidable – but I think the name also has the unfortunate effect of distracting from the bird’s chief asset, which is the vivid emerald-green colour of the bulk of the male’s plumage.  Just as distinctive, in its own way, is the dull olive-green plumage of female Red-rumped Parrots: the females are exquisitely camouflaged against the dried, balding grass of a typical Australian summer.  Red-rumped Parrots typically congregate in small, mixed flocks, and I think seeing the males and females together – the females always noticed last, and slowly revealing themselves in ever-greater numbers as the observer’s eye becomes attuned to their presence and their colouration – was probably my first ever lesson in the often striking sexual dimorphism present in many bird species.

It was from bird-watching when I was younger that I learned to be observant: prior to taking up the hobby I was terrible at searching for things, my parents would always tease me good-naturedly about how I couldn’t find something that was right in front of me.  Once, I vividly recall, I spent over half an hour searching for a particular piece of Lego that I was actually holding in my hand.  Learning to observe birds, though, changed all that: by training myself to observe details of plumage in an instant, before the bird took flight, or to notice a bird that was doing its best not to be noticed, I became infinitely more observant of everything else around me.  Bird-watching will never be the coolest of hobbies, but in my experience it’s been one of the most valuable.

But back to that day last week when I was riding through Richmond: even though I’d seen a flock of Red-rumped Parrots only half an hour before, on the edge of an oval near a border of native shrubs and bushes – a fairly typical urban habitat for the species – I was surprised to see that male bird dive into the plane tree, and not just because it was in such a busy, built-up area.  Australian forests and woodlands are dominated by eucalypts to an extraordinary degree, and eucalypts are infamous for dropping branches.  Many Australian animals – not just birds – make their homes in the resulting hollows, and the oft-repeated fear about Australian wildlife is that with the clearing of native old-growth forests the number of appropriate tree-hollows is quickly dwindling.  So it’s surprising to see a native animal diving into a hollow in an exotic tree – but, of course, any native animal happily living in a city is an animal that has proven itself adaptable to new environments, and at the end of the day I guess a hole is a hole; once, a few months ago, I happened to be sitting beneath a beech tree in one of Melbourne’s many public parks and above me a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) were busily inspecting a hollow in the tree.

Shortly after seeing that male Red-rumped Parrot descend into the plane tree I turned my bike off Victoria Crescent and carried it down the staircase at the end of Gipps Street which links to the bike path along the Yarra River.  From there it’s just a shade over ten minutes by bike back to my house.  With my curiosity piqued by the sighting of the Red-rumped Parrot, I decided to take special note of the native animals I saw on the ride back home.  They were all birds, unsurprisingly: Australian mammals are almost overwhelmingly nocturnal, and it was too cool a day for reptiles (although a week earlier I’d seen a Common Blue-tongue Lizard (Tiliqua scincoides) along the same path).  Between Gipps Street and my house I saw the following birds: Rainbow Lorikeets; Silver Gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae); Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen); Australian Ravens (Corvus coronoides); Magpie-larks (Grallina cyanoleuca); Little Black Cormorants (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris); Dusky Moorhens (Gallinula tenebrosa); and Chestnut Teals (Anas castanea).  There are probably a few more that I’ve forgotten about; certainly it wouldn’t be unusual for me to have seen Pacific Black Ducks (Anas superciliosa) and Grey Butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus) along that same short stretch of river-front bike path.  Any day now I expect to start seeing Sacred Kingfishers (Todiramphus sanctus), a seasonal migrant.

There’s one bird I remember seeing very well on the ride back home, though.  I’ve seen it regularly over the last year along the same brief stretch of river bank, just below Yarra Bend where the Merri Creek flows into the Yarra.  Whether it’s been the same individual for that whole time or not I obviously can’t tell – though the fact that there’s always been only one, and always in the same relatively small area of the river, suggests to me that it probably has been.  The bird, as you’ll know from the title of this post, is the Intermediate Egret.  Egrets are, essentially, Herons – but specifically they’re white Herons (though there are some that are more of an off-white, or which display patches of colour other than white in their breeding plumage).  There are several species in Australia and in appearance the only significant different between them is their size – and they tend to be named accordingly: there’s a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and an Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta), and in between them is the Intermediate Egret.  Right now the Intermediate Egret just below Yarra Bend is displaying its long, filament-like breeding plumage – though it can be hard to tell, as the bird is almost always on the far side of the river from the bike path.  Perhaps that’s why it seems to go unnoticed by most of the walkers and cyclists who use the path.  Perhaps it simply doesn’t draw enough attention to itself: depending as they do upon the catching of fish and other aquatic animals, Egrets are still and quiet birds, slowly stalking through shallow water and watching carefully for movement below them before stabbing with astonishing speed at whatever small animal has been unfortunate enough to grab their attention.  But like the Red-rumped Parrots living on the urban fringes of Australia’s southern and eastern cities the Intermediate Egret is there – if not always, then often enough.  It would, undoubtedly, rather not be noticed by humans than be noticed – the one time I saw it on the near side of the river, I so spooked it by stopping to stare that it flew across back to the far side – but it’s there.  You’ve just got to keep an eye out.  And if you learn to keep an eye out for birds and other animals living in urban environments, I think you may be pleasantly surprised by just how much else you notice.
Red-rumped Parrot image sourced from / Intermediate Egret image sourced from

Sunday, November 6, 2011

25) Domestic Pig

Sus scrofa domesticus

On my dinner plate tonight are mushrooms, broad beans, fennel, and a chunk of dead pig. 

I’m sorry to be so blunt about it but there it is, that’s what I’m eating.  The flesh of an animal killed for human consumption.  I’m not sure what cut of the animal it is – it’s a chop of some kind – because as with many other things the various cuts of meat and their relative merits is just something I’ve never quite bothered to learn about.  Besides, I don’t have a lot of money at the moment so I’m not really in a position to be fussy about buying particular cuts of meat: I’m more interested in the price than which part of the animal I’m eating.  I’ve chucked the packaging away and cooked the meat so as far as I’m aware what’s in front of me could be loin chops, cutlets, or forequarter chops – to name the three most likely cuts listed by the Australian pork industry group Australian Pork Limited. 

Australian Pork Limited lists over twenty common cuts of pork but what you won’t find among their list is any mention of the word “pig”.  We don’t eat Pig; we eat pork – just as we eat beef rather than Cow (Bos spp.).  I don’t know the origin of the euphemisms “pork” and “beef” but I don’t think any meat-eaters complain about the effect such words have on distancing us from the fact that what we’re eating was once a living, breathing creature that was sentient in its own way.  I think it’s telling that we’re more comfortable naming the flesh of Chickens (Gallus gallus) and fish of various kinds – Salmon and Trout (Salmonidae), Flathead (Platycephalidae) – for the animal from which the meat is obtained.  They’re sufficiently different from us that it’s easy to stop ourselves from trying to imagine their lives and deaths.  Mammals, though are uncomfortably close to home – after all, we’re mammals ourselves and most of us keep or have kept at some stage a beloved pet mammal – and I think being able to call them something other than what they are, when we’re shopping for their flesh, is a comfort. 

Perhaps not even a comfort, because when we’re doing our shopping – or our eating, for that matter – I doubt many of us who eat meat stop to consider the animal that that meat once was.  I think it’s of great importance, though, to never lose sight of the fact that if we choose to eat meat, we are choosing to eat a dead animal. 

I love animals, and I think Chickens and Sheep and Cows and Pigs are beautiful animals.  I also love eating them.  There are many people for whom this will be an indefensible position, and perhaps they’re right.  Perhaps at the end of the day I’m merely too weak-willed to give up eating meat, and undoubtedly I’m as guilty at times as any other meat-eater of ignoring the fact that the food I eat was once a living creature.  I do firmly believe that most people in the first world eat far too much meat: a little bit of meat goes an enormously long way in keeping our bodies running, especially in a country like Australia which is for the most part free of truly cold winters.  It’s no coincidence that after eating a kill Lions (Panthera leo) will spend hours sleeping: meat is not a thing that needs to be consumed in great quantities.  I rarely eat beef nowadays because most cuts of beef are simply too much for one person, and when I see someone devouring an enormous steak I’m horrified.  A steak the size of a dinner plate should be enough protein to keep a person going for days and days – it shouldn’t be a nightly meal. 

Aside from that, though, I have no moral objection to eating meat.  In fact quite the opposite.  If you’ve read previous posts in this blog you’ll probably have become used to me equating humans with other animals, and for me one of the greatest moral mistakes humans have made in the modern world is that we’ve come to see ourselves as somehow apart from the broader environment.  When the natural world is regarded as something “other”, it becomes all too easy for us to despoil the environment, to destroy ecosystems, to drive species to extinction.  If we don’t consider such actions to have any impact upon us – if we consider to them to be something fundamentally apart from our own lives – then any argument to curb the behaviour becomes merely nebulous, an abstraction. 

We accept that there are many animals, both wild and domestic, which for their diet rely partly or wholly on the flesh of other animals.  We don’t decry such habits – even though we might be distressed to witness one animal killing another.  Humans are not by nature carnivores – but we are omnivores, just like any number of animals.  A diet consisting entirely or even primarily of meat would be deeply unhealthy for Humans – but a diet entirely lacking in meat is, for me, a fundamental denial of our essential animalness.  It’s putting a wall up between Humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. 

If this all sounds like so much self-justification – well, it probably is to a degree.  I enjoy eating meat.  I love the taste of it.  When I’m sick and my body needs a boost I crave red meat more than anything else.  But I try to limit my consumption of meat to only what’s necessary.  My meat-eating is largely seasonal: the amount of meat I eat in summer is hugely less than the amount I eat in winter, when my body needs more fuel to keep itself warm.  Eating what I think are appropriate amounts of meat is another essential aspect of my (admittedly unscientific) dietary approach.  Because I don’t eat a very large amount of meat, at least by modern western standards, I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy pretty much all of my meat from the fortnightly farmers markets that are held near my house, and in doing so I’m able to buy meat from small-scale producers who seem to genuinely care for the welfare of their animals.  Of course killing an animal is a brutal thing, there’s no getting around that, but I’d like to imagine – and with justification, I think – that the farmers from whom I buy my meat directly do their best to ensure that the slaughtering process is as humane as possible.  The idea of factory farming horrifies me.  The thought that an animal should live a miserable life, only to be killed so that people can eat meat of such low quality that they won’t even think twice about it, makes me profoundly sad.  Killing and eating an animal should not be a throwaway act, it should not simply be a process. 

Which perhaps marks me out as a hypocrite.  What is a wild predator’s killing of a prey animal, if not a process?  The humdrum necessity of daily existence?  I don’t know if I have an answer to that, except to offer the rather weak excuse that, as you’ve no doubt realised by now, I’m prone to over-thinking everything. 

Regardless, it would be grotesque of me to write an entire post about Pigs, and then regard them solely as something to be eaten.  So, here are a few basic facts about the animal – the living, breathing, foraging, multiplying beast, not the food on my plate

 Pigs are famously intelligent.  A study published in 2009 demonstrated that pigs could learn to understand that a mirror showed a reflection of the world: that, in short, a mirror is a mirror and not a window.  Pigs are busy animals: the Wild Boar (Sus scrofa), from which the Domestic Pig was bred and to which it is still closely very related, spend 65% of their time active.  Boars and Pigs alike are social animals, preferring to be in a group rather than alone – though Domestic Pigs kept in factory farms are often separated from each-other, deprived of contact with their kin.  Pigs have a reputation for being dirty animals, and indeed they do wallow in mud and water – but only in order to cool down, as they lack sweat glands.  Not surprisingly, Pigs have a much more sensitive sense of smell than Humans – but their hearing is more sensitive, too, and they’re able to hear in a wider range than we are.  When in a group, Pigs communicate with each-other vocally.  Pigs apparently have a sweet-tooth.  And when Pigs get excited, they wag their tail much as a dog does – but in a circular motion, round and round, like a propeller.

Image sourced from