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"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Monday, February 20, 2012

38) Mantis


Last year I let the back garden of my house get out of hand.  It was easy to do: spurred on by the wettest year in memory, plants all over Melbourne sprang vigorously to life, and the city became green, and then over-green and over-run.  Weeds which my neighbours couldn’t recall having seen before in many years of living in Melbourne began to proliferate.  Gardens became jungles.

It was overwhelming, and being at best a reluctant gardener I reeled before it.  Then, late last year, I happened across some photos I’d taken of the garden when I first move into the house and, seeing those bare bricks, those orderly flower beds, I realised something had to be done.

Yarra City Council doesn’t provide green waste bins, so instead I took to filling the general rubbish bin before each weekly collection.  I ripped great fistfuls of plant matter from the ground and crammed it into the bin, tamping it down with a shovel to fit in as much as I could at any one time.  The job is still a long way from being done, but I’ve been helped by the fact that this summer, though still cooler than usual, has not been nearly as wet as last summer, and plant growth has not been as great.

Gardening is a boon for anybody interested in animals, even if it also provides a dilemma for anyone at all concerned about disrupting the lives of those animals: shelters, nests – homes, for that’s what they are – are inevitably disrupted by the excavation of unwanted plants and the turning of newly exposed soil.  In fact, “disruption” is not nearly an adequate word for it: it’s destruction, plain and simple.  Any spate of vigorous gardening will, without doubt, destroy the homes of any number of invertebrates.  Even if one doesn’t feel in the slightest bit concerned about this, upon seeing a Spider (Araneae), or a Woodlouse (Oniscidea), or a Beetle (Coleoptera) or a nest of Ants (Formicidae) running in panic from the newly raw sunlight, one can’t help but be struck by the extent to which we humans hold dominion over the lives of our fellow animals.

Of course in the case of invertebrates it would be wrong to single out humans as being unique in this power to destroy: any relatively large animal is going to disrupt the world beneath its feet.  Just think of Elephants (Elephantidae) uprooting unfavoured trees; more mundanely, think of Cows (Bos spp) foraging, tearing up grass and trampling the ground as they do so.

Yet if we humans imagine ourselves to be uniquely conscious of the consequences of our actions, surely it follows that we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we do other animals.  On the other hand a proper awareness of the sheer mind-boggling density of animal life on earth brings with it the realisation that there’s barely an action we can take that doesn’t impact some creature, somewhere.  We can’t help living, and to live is to cast ripples out into the world.  So what, then, can be done about the disruptions we cause?  Perhaps nothing; but it doesn’t hurt to be aware of them.

A few weeks ago I was engaged in a particularly enthusiastic weeding session, uprooting metres and metres of a particularly obstinate and vigorous weed which has been the bane of my garden for the last year and more.  Removing a bushel of it from near the back wall of my house, I noticed a small brown Mantis scrambling frantically up the weatherboard cladding.  Mantises – Praying Mantises, to give them their more familiar colloquial name – have long been a subject of particular fascination to me: I find myself simultaneously enthralled by, and slightly wary of, them.  On a practical level I have, for as long as I can remember, been cautious of those ferocious spines on their front limbs, the means by which they catch and hold their prey.  I’ve never actually felt the touch of those spines, but I’ve always been afraid to: though I can no longer remember the details, some warning given to me at an impressionable age has instilled in me a morbid fear of the slightest pinch of a Mantis’s forelegs.  Perhaps I’m mistaken, and the claws of a moderately-sized Mantis could not in fact puncture human skin, or if they could would be of no more consequence than the bite of an ant or the sting of a bee: painful, but ultimately tolerable.  Perhaps I ought, the next time I see a Mantis, to offer it my finger, to provoke it to anger.  But I won’t.  I’m afraid to.

The other fear presented by a Mantis is more abstract: although the Mantis does not pose any mortal threat to me, I can’t help imagining myself into a position in which it does.  Is there any animal more terrifying than a Mantis?  Expertly camouflaged; able to strike with unexpected speed.  Yet even such a visceral terror is not the most distressing aspect of a Mantis: worst of all is the fact that all of this danger, real or perceived, is packaged in a form which is so dishearteningly alien to our own.  A Mantis looks like a creature from another world – more so than any other insect I can think of.

But I find Mantises irresistibly fascinating, too – perhaps, in part, because of the slight unease the stir within me.   Or perhaps it’s the reverse of those fears, the other side of the coin, which provides such fascination: if a creature is alien, so too is it exotic; if an animal is dangerous, so too is it exciting.  Whatever the reason, whenever I see a Mantis I find myself gasping in exhilaration, even as I find myself imagining the terror of all the insects in its vicinity.

Let us not forget, though, which animal in this encounter is in the greatest danger.  When I disturbed the small brown Mantis a few weeks ago, tearing out of the soil the plant which had been its cover, its desperate movements indicated an animal in fear for its life.  Call it base instinct, call it acute awareness, it doesn’t matter: this great terror of the insect kingdom was in panic because of me.

All at once all of my latent fears about invertebrates suddenly seemed absurd.  Granted, some invertebrates can be a danger – I’m in no hurry to get bitten by a Funnel-web Spider (Atracinae) – but to live every day afraid of them is surely an over-reaction.  An insect or a spider in the course of its ordinary daily life no more wants to bite or sting a human, than any of us want to inflict an unprovoked attack upon one of our fellows.  We humans somehow manage to see ourselves as uniquely vulnerable within the animal kingdom – perhaps because we try so hard to isolate ourselves from it – but I hope it only takes a moment’s thought to realise just how ridiculous this is.  To say that we have nothing to fear from other animals is obviously incorrect – but to say that those fears are grossly overstated, and are too often the cause of our unnecessary violence towards other animals, I hope will not seem too far-fetched.
Image by Harry Saddler

Sunday, February 12, 2012

37) Australian Grayling

Prototroctes maraena

Melbourne Water is building a fishway near my house.  They’ve been building it for over a year now.  I work from home so when I’m in the mood I’m able to take time off during the day and ride past the construction site, and now that I think about I can’t recall ever having seen anybody working there.  No wonder, as those fond of criticising government waste would doubtless say, the project hasn’t been finished yet.

Yet there has been change.  Fences have been erected; temporary site offices have been moved into place; heavy vehicles have left caterpillar tracks in the mud.  Something is happening.  When it’s finished what it will be, according to an explanatory sign at the site, is an improvement to the environment: the construction of a vertical slot fishway which will better enable the progress up the Yarra River of eleven species of migratory native fish, among them the Australian Grayling, a species which spawns in fresh water before migrating to the sea then, at six months of age, returning upstream to fresh water to breed.  The Australian Grayling is a moderately sized fish, barely more than thirty centimetres long at the most, and according to an information brochure made available by Melbourne Water the species has declined in numbers largely because of man-made barriers which prevent its migration.  The Australian Grayling is relatively widespread, being found throughout south-eastern Australian from New South Wales through Victoria and into Tasmania; it’s hoped that the construction of the aforementioned fishway will see the Grayling’s population in the Yarra and its tributaries rise back towards former levels.

The site of the construction is Dights Falls, an unspectacular but quietly pretty tumble of rocks at Yarra Bend, where the Merri Creek flows into a broad shoulder of the Yarra.  The combination of the falls and the joining of the two watercourses creates a scrambling stretch of small cascades which are popular with kayakers.  Although the falls are overshadowed by the Eastern Freeway, the steady roar of traffic from that road is so continuous that it becomes, paradoxically, almost absent in the general ambience.  It’s a peaceful spot, with the traffic at ground-level consisting mostly of joggers and cyclists.  Occasionally, from higher points of the bike path that hugs the river, Melbourne’s CBD can be glimpsed through the trees; yet if you turn upstream and enter Yarra Bend Park it’s possible within ten minutes to imagine that you’re in the middle of the bush, rather than in an inner suburb of Australia’s second-largest city.

I’ve only been living in this area for about a year and a half, so even though I’ve been past Dights Falls innumerable times there’s doubtless much that I don’t know about my surrounds.  Just last week, from reading a brief and kind-hearted article in the Monthly, a national magazine of current affairs and cultural observation, I learned that the area around Yarra Bend is the centre of a significant but discreet gay cruising scene.  I can’t recall having seen any such activity, any more than I can recall having seen any work being done on the fishway.  Yet there it is: hidden in plain sight like the fish in the river unwittingly awaiting their new fishway.

A little further upstream along Merri Creek from Yarra Bend is a playing field, and at its northern edge is a small hill which provides a panoramic view of the city.  The hill, grassed over and topped with shrubs and a narrow, foot-worn walking trail, has an air of permanence – but standing up there recently, watching in the company of several strangers a storm roll across the city, I was told that the hill had been made with soil excavated in the process of building Melbourne’s Arts Centre in 1973.

As I write this I’m sitting in a bar at the East Brunswick end of Lygon Street.  The bar has been furbished to project an air of carefully gentility: wooden fittings, lampshades which imitate in form old-fashioned gas lamps.  The bar specialises in artisan beer, though other drinks are also served.  By the door are illustrations of fish, of the kind one might find in an old book of identification.  They’re arrayed across three hanging prints, their heads pointed towards the door and their bodies as depicted seemingly tensed for action.

It’s the kind of bar it would have been impossible to imagine in this part of town when I moved to Melbourne only seven-and-a-half years ago; and indeed in the immediate vicinity many indications of an older and less image-conscious East Brunswick are still very much in evidence: over the road from the bar there’s a cheap Indian restaurant, the white fluorescent strip-lighting above its hoarding staring fixedly through the bar’s front window whenever I lift my head.  Just a few blocks down the road is a gelato shop which has been in situ for so long that it’s become a Melbourne institution; a block further south from that one of several large apartment buildings in this area is under construction.  Some things change and some things remain; it’s ever the nature of life in a city.

When I moved to Melbourne I lived first in the centre of Fitzroy, only a block from Brunswick Street.  I used to walk to the end of my street every day to have a coffee in the local café; I can still remember the shock when that coffee crept up in price from three dollars, to three dollars twenty, to three dollars fifty.  The entirety of Melbourne, obsessed with coffee, seemed mildly scandalised at first as coffee prices rose to equivalent levels throughout the city, but now, over time, we’ve got used to it.

When I lived in Fitzroy Brunswick Street was the coolest street in Melbourne, but only a few minutes walk away Smith Street, the border between Fitzroy and Collingwood, was a no-go area: heroin had ravaged it, and what businesses were there had shut down save for pawn shops and factory outlets.  Smith Street, I was told by friends who’d lived in Melbourne longer than me, had once been a lovely place.

Nowadays Smith Street has bounced back, cafés and bars and boutique shops proliferate there, and Brunswick Street has peaked, derided by many as too mainstream, too popular.  Smith Street’s heroin has, tragically, moved south to Victoria Street in Richmond; Brunswick Street’s cool has moved north, to High Street in Northcote, a suburb which I was once told was the epicentre of Melbourne’s lesbian community.  Whether that’s still true or not, I don’t know, but people still joke about it in the way Australians joke casually about any demographic that deviates from the heterosexual Anglo-Saxon norm.  If offence is rarely intended in these jokes, nor is the possibility of causing offence often acknowledged.

Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs may appear to have undergone significant changes in the last few years, but those changes are in fact relatively restrained: the residents of the suburbs are still predominantly Caucasian, though more affluent than they once were.  In the city’s western suburbs the demographic changes have been more significant.  Since the Fraser Government in the 1970s granted asylum to a wave of Vietnamese refuges – the first so-called ‘boat people’ – in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Footscray and the suburbs around it have been the most significant hub of Melbourne’s Vietnamese community.  That is still very much the case, but in the last decade the area has also seen the striking emergence of a first-generation African community.  When I was a teenager in Canberra, attending a high school which was blessed by an abundance of children from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, all of them the children of diplomats, I remember thinking that the only group that was really missing from Australia’s great mix of ethnicities was Africans.  How that has changed in the last few years.  There’s been no more divisive issue in Australian politics and society over the last decade than the issue of refugees and asylum seekers, and amid that atmosphere it’s peculiarly joyful to see groups of African teenagers forming noisy cliques on buses and walking garrulously down inner-city footpaths.  They’re as annoying as any loud teenagers, and there’s something to be relished in that borderline obnoxiousness, in knowing that Australia – against, sadly, the collective will of many of its citizens – has given these children a home so peaceful that they can be as unthinkingly, uncaringly irritating as any other teenager.

Last weekend I was on a train going north from my house.  I was only getting off at Thornbury, a suburb just beyond the now highly fashionable Northcote and a suburb which is likely to soon become to Northcote what Northcote was to Fitzroy only a few years ago.  Beyond Thornbury the train pushes further and further north, taking passengers to steadily less affluent suburbs all the way into Zone Two, an area of the city scorned and seldom visited by those of us who live in the more inner-city Zone One.

Behind me on the train was a woman struggling to contain her two small children, and because I’m more judgemental than I should be I honed in on her broad accent and on the fact that she’d named her daughter ‘Shakira’, and without being able to see her I formed in my mind an extremely unflattering picture of her: her conservative, probably racist, politics; her mean-spirited and easily derided aspirations.  When the train reached Thornbury Station I stood up, and turned around to go to the door behind me so that I could see this woman and her children and so have my prejudices confirmed.

She was a white woman, with bleach-blonde hair, and her children were both brown, the colour of a latté and with curly black African hair.  Getting off the train I noticed two “mixed race” couples: African men with white Australian women.  How uncharitable I had been; how heartening to be reminded that Australians, though they may act cruelly en masse, as individuals are frequently open-minded and welcoming.

Two creeks, the Merri and the Darebin, bracket Thornbury; as they flow further apart from each-other the suburbs of Melbourne sprawl for kilometres northwards.  In the west the suburbs follow the course of the Maribyrnong River.  Other waterways branch out in other directions, sketching between them the pattern of Melbourne’s sprawl and reaching back to their sources well beyond the city’s bounds.  Long before the city was founded, of course, the area was occupied by Aborigines of the Kulin nations; long, long before humans arrived the rivers were swum by fish such as the Australian Grayling.  The fortunes of all have fluctuated since Melbourne was founded in 1835 – the region has changed irrevocably and is now something more than it once was, and something less.  If the city seems settled now it’s merely because we’re able to perceive a place only moment to moment: the city will continue to change, as cities must.  Through it all, we can hope, through its history and into its future, the Australian Grayling will continue to swim and will begin, again, to flourish.

Image sourced from, © G.Edgar

Monday, February 6, 2012

36) Siberian Jay

Perisoreus infaustus

The animals of which we are most fond are often those that are the most physically lovely.  This is not always the case, however: one of the most cherished birds in the forests and woodlands of Australia is the Grey Shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica), a bird of un-noteworthy size whose colouration consists in its entirety of pale grey, light brown, black for the beak and feet, and in front of the eyes a dash of white so minimal that it’s as if even this was abandoned hastily for fear of unseemly ostentation.  Likewise I can’t imagine that many people would consider the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) to be a particularly aesthetically pleasing animal – but is there anybody in the world who doesn’t long to see one?

What makes these animals – and many others – attractive to us is not their physical appearance, but something else entirely: in the case of the Grey Shrike-thrush, it’s the fact that it has one of loveliest songs of all Australian birds; for the Blue Whale, it’s the animal’s spectacular size that so awes and exhilarates us.  Of course, beauty is as ever in the eye of the beholder, and can be a curiously malleable thing: an animal, or an object, or even a person, can be ignored or disdained at first glance and then slowly – or even abruptly – become beautiful to us once it’s found its way into our affections.  I think the Grey Shrike-thrush is one of the prettiest birds in Australia – but if it screeched like a parrot, or yelped like an eagle, I don’t think I would give it a second glance.

On the other hand, a bird’s song, or a whale’s size, are still physical manifestations of that animal: in appreciating them we’re still placing high regard on some aesthetic aspect of the animal.  What, though, of animals that we appreciate for entirely different reasons?  What of animals who are attractive to us purely by association?

One of my favourite birds is the Siberian Jay.  It’s a rather nondescript bird – in fact it shares more than a few physical similarities with the Grey Shrike-thrush, with its plumage consisting largely of shades of grey and brown.  At around thirty centimetres from beak to tail it’s a little larger than the Grey Shrike-thrush, and it’s stockier in appearance, and over the base of its wings it boasts feathers which are rather an attractive shade of russet-orange, and its head is black.  Really, though, it’s just as unprepossessing as the Grey Shrike-thrush; more so, perhaps: it can’t even lay claim to a beautiful song.

Yet I cherish the memory of this bird nonetheless.  I’ve seen it twice, or more accurately numerous times but in two specific periods of my life: in 2003, and in 2008.  Both times I was in the Finnish Arctic, in a national park called Lemmenjoki National Park.  The Siberian Jay may have been the first bird I saw in the Arctic: it’s attentive to its surroundings, and ceaselessly curious, and if it sees a human it will approach, hopping through the branches or along the ground to observe from a close but safe distance.  If frightened, or distracted by something new to investigate, it will retreat, flapping through the trees on the short, rounded wings whose design – ideal for flying in confined spaces – it shares with every other bird that lives in a forest habitat.

It seems a friendly bird, but to what extent is that a condition of the bird itself?  During both of the brief periods of my life in which I’ve seen it, I’ve been on holiday in an area – the Arctic – which is almost unimaginably exotic for somebody raised in Australia.  I was happy to be there.  Surely, then, I was predisposed to regard any animal through that emotional filter – particularly a bird, a group of animals of which (as you will surely have realised by now if you’ve been reading this blog) I am particularly fond.

When we love a thing, whatever that thing may be, it’s difficult to imagine anybody having any other reaction to it.  The second time I was in the Arctic I was astonished to learn in a museum that the indigenous Sami people of the region have traditionally regarded the Siberian Jay as an omen of death.  By then I was already truly besotted by the bird, and it saddened me on a strangely personal level that it should ever have been so regarded.  Yet I shouldn’t have been so surprised: I’ve only been to the Arctic twice, both times as a holiday, and both times during the relatively mild early-autumn month of September.  I had the comforts of the modern world: huts, heating, and the knowledge that even two-hundred metres above the Arctic Circle help was only a phone call away.  My experience of the Arctic, although utterly, wonderfully alien to anything I’d previously experienced, was not in the slightest bit difficult or challenging.

As such it was not in any way comparable to the lives of those people who for thousands of years created a culture and folklore that enabled them to survive and explain that environment.  From the swarming insects in summer to the brutally cold and dark days of winter, a life of subsistence in the far north of Europe must have been almost impossibly hard.  I can’t explain why the Siberian Jay should have earned its particular reputation in the Sami culture, but I can imagine how a people living in one of the most challenging environments on earth would be inclined to have an infinitely grimmer perspective on that environment than myself, a mere visitor.  For me, the Arctic – with its extraordinary stillness, and air so crisp that even the slightest sound resonated through the forest – is a place of pure beauty.  For Sami in pre-modern times it was undoubtedly beautiful, too, but also dangerous, and tiring, and constraining.

We live in different times now, though.  The Sami still herd reindeer, as they always have, but now with the aid of helicopters and quad-bikes; and more modern folklore takes a kinder attitude to the Siberian Jay: nowadays, apparently, superstition bestows misfortune upon anybody who should harm a Siberian Jay.  A Swedish researcher quoted in a New York Times article from 2002 relayed the belief that a gun used to shoot a Siberian Jay is thereafter rendered useless.

Personal attitudes can change, too.  There are people to whom I was once indifferent and who I now regard fondly; similarly there are casual acquaintances – fewer, I hope – whose company I once enjoyed but who have subsequently slipped in my affections.  When I was a child the one bird I adored above all others was the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), a bird I now regard with disdain at best.  It’s unlikely that any such changes in attitude are attributable to the recipients – human, bird, whatever – of our attention; more likely these inhabitants of the world have continued much as they always have, and the change is instead within us.  A Siberian Jay is not inherently a friendly bird – it’s my own cheerful demeanour upon encountering it that renders it so.  An animal is neither beautiful nor unattractive, lucky nor unlucky – it simply is.

Image sourced from