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Monday, April 2, 2012

41) Black-shouldered Kite

Elanus axillaris

A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, I saw above the tracks of a siding at West Footscray train station only ten minutes out of Melbourne’s CBD a Black-shouldered Kite.  It was the last thing I was expecting to see; for raptors are always a surprise – and to see this of all species in such a location was doubly startling.

Though rarely seen so close to the city, Black-shouldered Kites are by no means uncommon, and it’s likely that many Australians have seen them without realising what they were seeing: like Australian Kestrels (Falco cenchroides), which are only very slightly smaller,  they can often be seen hovering over grassland, wings fluttering in an exceptional display of controlled flight.  When they see a prey animal below them – typically a mouse – they turn out of the wind and dive to the ground, catching and killing the unfortunate creature if they’re quick enough.  Because, like Kestrels, they prefer to hunt over grassland, Black-shouldered Kites are, like Kestrels, commonly seen alongside Australia’s roads: many people will have seen a small but striking white raptor hovering with fierce concentration above the broad treeless verge of a roadside.  Though the bird remains in place the vision of it is gone in an instant, a flash of brilliant white glimpsed through a car window and quickly left behind, a fleeting and enigmatic apparition in the rear-view mirror.  Despite their commonness and their striking colouration Black-shouldered Kites are unfamiliar birds to most people, and unlike many of their relatives they have not found a place in the broader national consciousness.

Yet the bird’s image is surprisingly widespread.  Although during the breeding season the Black-shouldered Kite is a predominantly coastal bird, in Australia’s desert interior its place is taken by a very closely related species, the Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus), whose physical differences from its near relative amount to no more than an elongated black marking on the underside of each wing and the absence of a small smudge of black behind the eyes.  Otherwise the two species are identical: white bodies, black and grey wings, and dramatic red eyes.

The two species are both found in Australia – yet their analogues are found worldwide: the Black-shouldered Kite and the Letter-winged Kite both belong to a subfamily of Kites called the Elanids.  There are four species in the genus Elanus, and they all look nearly identical.  The White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) is found in the Americas; the Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus) is found across southern and south-eastern Asia to Africa, and even into Spain and Portugal.

The Elanids are, of course, not the only animals with such a universal distribution.  Indeed there are numerous species – not to mention genera and families – which are found worldwide: staying with raptors, the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) and the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) can both be found in every hospitable continent on earth, from east to west and north to – well, not quite south, but living everywhere except Antarctica is nothing to be sneezed at.  Broadening the picture, there are any number of animals which are found worldwide – in fact most of them are.  It’s only a select few which are restricted to one or two places; even fewer which have no related species or groups elsewhere.

I wonder if Australia’s lack of familiarity with its two Elanid kites is due, in part, to the group’s global ubiquity.  Even the least interested Australian could rattle off a list of animals that are found on this continent and nowhere else: Kangaroos (Macropodidae); Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus); Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus); Lyrebirds (Menuridae).  We’re proud of our animals: all Australian animals are protected by law, and Australians as a rule like boasting about the weird and wonderful creatures that can be found here.

Yet as I think about it I find something unsettling in this attitude.  By saying that our wildlife is different, what we’re really saying is that we are different.  I’ve heard many conversations – and I’ve engaged in more than a few myself – in which a resident of one country will talk about an animal – or some other feature of the natural environment – and somebody will respond with a comparable, or contrasting, example from their own country; and so it goes, back and forth, back and forth, in a constant good-natured game of one-upmanship.  Why should we be so determined to stake out the differences between places?  Why should we take such joy and pride in it?

Imagine a conversation in which one person describes something, and the person to whom they’re talking responds with the excited exclamation: “We have one of those as well!”  Of course such conversations take place but I don’t think they’re as common as the alternative.  We seem driven to find the differences that separate us more readily than the commonalities that may bring us together, as if by doing so we can mark out our own small piece of emotional territory.  It’s difficult to conceive of many people being excited by the thought of four small and unusually attractive birds of prey linking otherwise disparate nations by their presence.  From a scientific perspective there’s an interesting story to be told about the phenomenon of speciation, the process by which over an unimaginable period of time one species becomes several – but more than that, we should be able to see in such animals a possibility to reach for a connection with people and places we might otherwise never give a second thought to.  There is, undeniably, a thrill in looking upon an animal and knowing that very few people have had the chance to do so – I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have had seen wild Orange-bellied Parrots (Neophema chrysogaster), of which fewer than two-hundred remain – but surely even greater is the joy of seeing an animal and knowing that somebody on the other side of the world may have recently been watching the same or a very similar creature: knowing that the delight and surprise of seeing, perhaps, an Elanid kite hovering above long grass, is shared by somebody whom you have never met, and will never meet, and can barely imagine except through the certain knowledge that they, too, are an inhabitant of this planet, open to and exposed daily to the myriad wonders and astonishments such a privileged position allows.

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