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

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

40) Rat


There’s a lot of wildlife around at the moment.  Over the spring and the summer just finished it’s seemed at times as if you couldn’t open your eyes in Eastern Australia without seeing some previously elusive animal.  When I visited my parents’ holiday house just after Christmas I saw more wallabies and kangaroos there in two days than I had in a decade of visits combined.  Just last week I saw two Tawny Frogmouths (Podargus strigoides), taking the total I’ve seen over the last year to five – on top of a total of one for the previous six years.

The only explanation I can come up with is the rain: there’s been so much rain over the last year and a half that plant life has grown with extraordinary vigour; following that, I suppose, the animals that feed on the plants have taken advantage of the conditions and bred in large numbers; following them, the animals that feed on other animals.  Much of the country is flooding, but the rains have also leant an extraordinary abundance to the environment.

A week and a half ago I was walking home from the bus stop at about eleven o’clock in the morning.  It was a cool, muggy morning, the humidity of summer gradually fading away in the face of the approaching autumn.  As I was passing a railway embankment at the top of Hoddle Street, one of the busiest roads in Melbourne, I noticed a scattering of unexpected shapes in the grass.  If I didn’t know better, I thought, I’d swear they were rats – but rats out in the open like that, in the morning, with cars and trains and people hurrying past?  Surely not.  But then they began to move.

Yet, even when they moved then they didn’t run away.  They were near shelter, a small brick wall overgrown by grass and shrubbery, and although some of the rats – there were at least half a dozen of them – made for that cover, at least as many stayed where they were, retreating at most only a metre as I passed before settling again.

Rats are common in any city, but seeing them always comes as a surprise.  Seeing them be so bold and unheeding of any threat is even more of a surprise.  I pass by the location where I saw the rats regularly, nearly every day, but I hadn’t seen these rats previously.  Everything about them suggested youth: their slender frames, their guileless behaviour.  Curious to see if they’d still be there, that night I walked past the spot again – and sure enough, there they all were, grazing in the grass like cattle.    They were there again the next day, and as I stopped to stare some of them actually came closer to me, as if unaware of my presence, until I could have reached out to touch them.  The grass they were in looked short to me, but as I watched the rats – up to a dozen of them, this time – they dived into the grass, heads down and tails up like Ducks (Anatidae), and re-emerged with stubby tufts which they grasped between their forepaws.  They nibbled eagerly on the roots of the grass and I could hear the sound of their chewing.

Since then I’ve walked past the spot whenever I’ve had the chance, and almost without fail I’ve seen the rats.  The most I’ve ever seen at one time was a dozen; the fewest, four.  I can only assume they’re all from the same nest.  They’ve filled out slightly over the course of the last two weeks: the last time I saw them they were unmistakably bulkier, sturdier.

It’s fair to say I’ve taken them to heart.  In my experience most people are shockingly unobservant of the world around them, and whenever I stop and stare in delight at the young rats I feel strangely proprietary of them.

This feeling was helped by the expectation that most other people who might notice the rats would have a rather different reaction to mine.  Is there another animal which is so common and yet greeted with such revulsion?  Cockroaches (Order Blattodea), perhaps – yet the disgust most people feel towards them is not accompanied by the mortal terror that is part of the typical human response to rats.  I don’t wish to suggest that this fear is unfounded – when it comes to acting as disease vectors rats have far too much negative history to ignore, and it’s entirely reasonable to prefer not to have wild rats living in close proximity to us – yet at the same time I find it difficult not to take great joy from the presence of any animal, even such troublesome ones.

Getting such an unusually close and unhurried look at the rats, I found myself mesmerised by the simple mechanics of their tiny bodies: the way their shoulders dipped towards each other to form a cleft in the centre of each young rat’s back; the graceful curve of their musculature highlighted in the morning sun.  Even the deep nut-brown of their fur, glossy with youth; initially, the slenderness of their bodies; latterly, the new solidity as the rats grow.  The way the animals bound away from the footpath as I pass, taking exuberant leaps over the short grass – because in recent days they’ve become more cautious, more wary.  Perhaps one or more of them has been killed; perhaps they have a mother somewhere, teaching them survival lessons in unknowable ways.  There was something very endearing, very touching, about the rats’ youthful indifference to the possibility of danger, such a short time ago; now, as they grow up, there’s something sobering about the way their behaviour has changed in such a short time: we may fear rats, and yet we tolerate them – if nothing else, because we’re unable to do anything significant about their presence.  The rats, I suspect, have much the same attitude to us.  And they are, at the end of the day, wild animals, and no wild animal can remain carefree for long.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

39) Indian Myna

Acridotheres tristis

I’ve been thinking of writing a piece about Indian Mynas for a while now.  It could be contentious to finally do so: there’s probably not a single species of bird in Australia which is more reviled, and I suppose I’d cast myself among the haters – as much as I hate anything.  That alone, though, may be reason enough to write about the bird: writing about animals that I love is easy; could I write at length about an animal I dislike?  Could I stomach it?  And would it be a compelling read?

I’m not sure that it would.  Perhaps more gravely, such a piece would also stand in stark contrast to the rest of this blog, which I think – I hope – has achieved a certain uniformity of tone, a certain generosity of spirit in its accumulated forty-thousand-plus words.  If it has achieved anything like that, it would successfully convey the delight and joy I felt as a child – and still feel today – when I was introduced to the world of animals through the excited hush of David Attenborough.

So why risk jeopardising such a carefully worked for cumulative effect now?  I don’t think there’s a good reason to do so; and yet there must be some reason to write about Indian Mynas.  The story of their presence in Australia is interesting enough: they were introduced to this country in the late nineteenth century to control pest insects – before, not unusually, becoming a pest themselves.  Additionally, if I allow myself to confront the thought, I realise that despite my longstanding dislike of them lately I’ve come to find them to be rather attractive birds: rich chocolate-brown, glossy black, bright yellow around the eyes and with a starburst of white under each wing.  Is that enough to justify writing about them?

When I started this blog I knew that the only way it would be at all successful would be if I somehow managed to keep at it, to not lose enthusiasm; and I realised that the only way I could do that would be if I determined, right from the start, to update it once a week.  So far I’ve mostly managed to do that, and the rare shortfalls – such as this entry, which is terribly late indeed – are made up for by the fact that in the early days, in the first flush of enthusiasm, I was updating more than once a week.

It’s a struggle, though, to come up with something worth saying every week.  Rightly or wrongly, I think that a blog that consisted solely of straight descriptions of animals and their behaviour would soon grow dull, or if not dull then certainly repetitive.  I prefer to try to link each animal to something beyond it, some human concern: I imagine this blog as inhabiting the border zone between the emotional and behavioural habitats of human and non-human animals – but the more I write, the greater the risk of repetition becomes, and for each post I write I reject several ideas because they seem too familiar, or too much of a stretch – even by the rather lenient standards I’ve allowed myself in this forum.

So, to summarise, I’ve been wanting to write about Indian Mynas, but I’ve been unsure how to approach the animal.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, I had a rather unusual and very unexpected encounter with one.

As in any significant urban centre in Eastern Australia, Indian Mynas are the predominant bird in inner-city Melbourne, and there are always several of them in the vicinity of my house.  They perch on the fence between my house and that of my neighbours; they parade along the roofline of the house behind the wall at the back of my garden.  Sometimes they straddle the wires of my clothesline and defecate on my washing.  There are Mynas everywhere.  It’s very easy to become blasé about animals which one sees every day – and that’s true whether we admire the animals in question or dislike them.  Perhaps more so for those we dislike: it’s wearying carrying that level of hatred day in, day out.  There’s nothing that we, on an individual basis, can really do about the presence of Indian Mynas in our cities, so all we’re left with is to wish that they weren’t there; and to ignore them when we can.

The other week, though, a Myna came into my life which was impossible to ignore.  It was a windy day, and I could hear the leaves of the trees bending and the corrugated iron rooves of the houses and sheds in my neighbourhood rattling.  I was sitting at my dining-table, with the house’s fireplace behind me.  The conditions of my lease dictate that the fireplace is strictly ornamental, but it’s still connected to a chimney: sometimes when it’s raining a few droplets will spatter down the flue.  It’s also got a healthy coating of soot, and when on that windy day two weeks ago I first heard soot tumbling down the chimney I assumed it was just being dislodged by the wind.

As the noise continued and intensified, though, it became more difficult to convince myself that that was the case.  When I heard the familiar sound of a Myna squawking I was able to suppose for a few moments that it was echoing down the chimney, that the bird was perched up on the roof and shouting down into the empty fireplace – but that was more wishful thinking than actual belief, and it soon became obvious by the resonance and proximity of the bird’s noises that there was an Indian Myna stuck in the darkness of my fireplace.

How, then, to get it out?  There was never any question in my mind that I would rescue it somehow, but I didn’t particularly want to get covered in soot and I certainly didn’t want to get attacked by a panicked bird – particularly one as naturally aggressive as an Indian Myna.  I put on a pair of gardening gloves in case I’d have to handle the bird, and I put on also my heavy-duty raincoat, closing the hood tightly around my face so that only my eyes were showing.  If I still had my laboratory goggles from my university days I would have worn those, too.

Yet when I opened the door of the fireplace nothing happened.  The Myna was in there somewhere but I couldn’t see it, and when I tried to reach into the fireplace I couldn’t feel it.  It was crouching low, out of my reach – the prospect of being caught no doubt even more frightening to it than the prospect of being stuck – and I worried for a moment that I wouldn’t be able to save the Myna, until I remembered the ash tray beneath the fireplace.  I pulled it out and almost immediately the Myna flew out of the fireplace and into my sitting-room.

I’d opened the French windows near the fireplace wide so that the Myna wouldn’t fly around the room, and when it came out of the fireplace the Myna sat briefly on the back of one of my dining-chairs, glaring at me the way that Mynas do, before escaping the house by flying over the top of the open door.  It’s tempting in such a moment to wonder about the consciousness of the animal, its sense of the world at that time: did it consider me a threat?  Did it regard its experience as a close-run thing?  Did it have any conception of bad fortune to have found itself stuck in the chimney, or good fortune to have escaped?  When looking in the eye of an animal, and particularly because the eyes of so many animals are so like our own, it’s almost impossible not to impose upon the animal some degree of human awareness – but to imagine a Myna feeling itself lucky is to imagine some degree of cosmic awareness of the bird’s part, and however much we’re willing to imagine an animal with consciousness – and I’m willing to grant animals more consciousness than I suspect many other people would – that remains, I think, a bridge too far.

If the Myna felt nothing, though, I certainly felt lucky.  First and foremost for having avoided the problem of having a dead bird in my chimney; more immediately for having escaped the experience unscratched and unpecked.  “Relief” would probably be a better word to describe these emotions than “luck” – but “lucky” is certainly a good way to describe how I felt when I’d got over the experience, and had a moment to reflect on the opportunity that had been presented to me.  Here was something to write about!  A real, tangible, unusual animal encounter to fill out my weekly requirement!  What luck indeed.

More than luck, though?  Another word might be “serendipity”; another, more problematic word, could be “fate”.

We live in a time when many of us are fond of invoking fate, with varying degrees of confidence.  Perhaps no more so than in any other age – but at a time when much of the world is struggling towards secularism with varying degrees of success, for many people fate or destiny seem to have replaced more formal religious belief.  Just look at the language of love: it’s no longer adequate to settle for a partner or a companion; now one must find one’s “soulmate”, as if each of the six-billion-plus people on earth could be happy with only one person among that unfathomable multitude.  When something fortunate happens we say “It was meant to be”, and though we may not always be serious about such pronouncements there seems to remain a certain degree of faith in some otherworldly power guiding our lives.  Granted, it’s a comforting thought: there’s a strong allure to the idea that there’s some guiding force in all the bewildering enormity of the universe.

If the thought of fate or destiny is a comfort, the corollary would suggest that the absence of fate or destiny – the idea that life is random and unguided – is unforgivingly bleak.  But I think it’s possible – and easy – to look at it another way: it shouldn’t be too much of a deductive leap to say that a life without fate is a life of absolute freedom.  I’m certainly not the first person to suggest such a thing, yet it seems that it’s still necessary to point it out: the more I think about it the more I find that notions of fate or destiny are almost horrifyingly constricting.  I can’t imagine anything worse than the thought that there’s a particular path a human life is supposed to take – with the suggestion that any deviation from that path is somehow “wrong”.

So let’s forget about fate, let’s decry the notion that the universe has a purpose.  While we’re at it let’s stop looking for the meaning of life: it’s not such a bad thing for life to be meaningless, for the universe to be indifferent to us.  If any of us has an iron-clad destiny, and if life has any meaning, may I suggest that it’s simply this: to live.  To experience the world as it happens around us day by day, to find what makes us content, knowing that we are conducting ourselves within a realm of infinite possibilities.  To know that a bird stuck in our chimney at the moment we’re seeking inspiration is not an omen or a sign or a gift – it’s just a happy accident.  The world is extraordinary in its randomness; somehow I can’t help feeling that to see some “higher” meaning in it is to make it banal, more clockwork – and in the process to make life an infinitely lesser experience.

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