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"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Thursday, May 31, 2012

45) Deer


Over the last few weeks I’ve been going to see the exhibition Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond, at the State Library of Victoria, in the centre of Melbourne.  It’s a small exhibition, only one room, but even so I’ve been dipping in and out of it: taking five minutes at a time to gaze at a handful of pictures; leaving; coming back the next day or the day after.  The exhibition has been open since March, and it will be open for another month yet, so there’s been no need for me to rush myself.  Too often in the past my visits to exhibitions have become a blur of glanced-at paintings, barely appreciated art – a marathon run as if it’s a sprint.  This time I decided to try a different approach, and it’s been a pleasure to visit and re-visit the artworks in the exhibition, letting them slowly become familiar.

The artworks depict all manner of courtly and aristocratic life, real and imagined, from the Persian, Mughal, and Ottoman empires of two-hundred to eight-hundred years ago.  Nature scenes abound: lovers sing beneath trees, men meet in the wilderness.  A group of hunters rests in a moment of idleness.  The illustrations are exquisite: greens, blues, and reds are radiant, even all these hundreds of years after their creation; gold leaf sparkles under the dim lights of the gallery.  It’s impossible not to be reminded of European illuminated manuscripts: there’s a shared delicacy of feeling, a fragility and tenderness in the depiction of people enraptured by their devotion – to each-other, to their own spirituality, to nobility and honour.  Several of the illustrations are heroic: one depicts a Persian hero of legend undergoing a trial by fire to prove his purity.  The golden flames writhe and curl around his serene face.

Those same flames reach also for the face of the man’s Horse (Equus ferus caballus).  The horse is allowed by the artist an expression of fear, a moment of wide-eyed doubt; yet horse and rider are so intertwined, their lives and bodies so of a piece, that it’s impossible to look at this small illustration and imagine harm coming to one and not to the other.  The rider survives the ordeal; his horse must, too.

The exhibition is overflowing with animals, and to wander from picture to picture is to be reminded of the centrality of animals in human lives, then and now: a Turkish book of “the wonders of creation” depicts a collared Dog (Canis lupus familiaris); decorative Tigers (Panthera tigris) and Hares (Lepus) dance around the borders of other illustrations, their colours muted so as not to divert attention but their bodies lithe and lively, rendered with great care and affection.

In one illustration, a woman sings to the animals of the forest, pacifying them.  I don’t have the exhibition catalogue; I cannot recall the woman’s name.  Yet in my memory I can see the group of small Deer gathered at the woman’s feet, their bodies drawn with infinite affection and exquisite tenderness.  The woman in the illustration and her male companion are posed stiffly, formally, despite the ardour of their story; by contrast the Deer are given grace and suppleness: one leans back as if to nibble at an itch on its back; another curls like a cat asleep, its back curved gently above a darting stream.

We cannot help showing what we love.  The illustrations in the exhibition are largely depictions of ancient stories and poems, and many of them are accompanied by elegant Arabic calligraphy.  The writing means nothing to me but the pictures tell stories of their own: stories of their creators, and the humanity bursting within them.  The illustrations are loud with that particular human delight and joy in the world, and in the fact of being able to present to others the world as we see it or as we wish it.

This week the exhibition coincides with Melbourne’s annual Emerging Writers Festival.  Across the road from the State Library is a bar, Rue Bebelons, which each night for the eleven days of the Festival is full of writers and readers, creators and thinkers – people – telling stories to each-other.  Stories of everything: manuscripts in progress, publishers contacted; TV shows watched, food eaten.  Stories of the full glittering mundaneness of human life.  People sit down together and the words come spilling out, shouted over the music, loosened by alcohol.  People speak eagerly of their passions, and discover within themselves the willingness to hear of the passions of others.  Everybody at the Festival is a writer, in one form or another, and it’s as if for this one time of the year we’ve all been invited to step out of our solitary lives and discover or re-discover a community of our peers.

For eleven days the city seems to hum with the sound of conversations between people.  Tastes range widely but nobody’s particular passions are disdained.   People crowd bars and library rooms and live music venues to hear each-other speak, to ask questions, and to meet each-other, and the boundaries between those who’ve been invited to take part in the Festival and those who purchase tickets form the audience at any given session quickly dissolve.

Encounters happen in other ways, too: on Twitter and through videos and blogs the conversations continue, in their formal and informal ways, in a delirium of excitement and enthusiasm.  Our methods and modes of telling stories are ever-changing, and perhaps now more than ever; yet the stories remain the same as they ever were.  Life in its many shades is in its essence the same now as it was eight-hundred years ago; the same here, in Australia, as it was then, in Persia, or in any other country in any other time one cares to imagine.  The stories, though, have not faded with age: they are as vivid and as vital now as they have been throughout human history.

At the end of the Festival everyone will retreat back to their normal lives, with a network of new connections and new acquaintances, and with a gallery of memories to visit again and again, until next year when the Festival returns.  In a year we may find that much has changed; yet we may not be surprised to learn afresh that the most important things, the stories that speak most resonantly of our essential humanity, are still the same, and will always be so; we may be reminded that it’s the commonality of our everyday stories that makes them so bearable, and so precious.

Image sourced and adapted from

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

44) Eastern Spinebill

Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris

It was the plumage that set it apart.  Though in size it was indistinguishable from the House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) with which it was travelling, in the dull autumn light the white of its breast and – more particularly – the crisp delineation of the borders between the various fields of colour on its body, made the bird stand out immediately even in the brief instant in which it flashed across my field of vision.

It was an Eastern Spinebill, a small species of Honeyeater (Meliphagidae) common throughout south-eastern Australia.  What it was doing with a group of Sparrows, I can only guess at: although it’s not uncommon, especially in the bush, to see mixed flocks of small birds foraging together, what unites the birds is usually a shared food – but the diets of Sparrows and Spinebills are nothing alike.  Most likely it was just simple chance that placed the Spinebill among the Sparrows just as I happened to glance in their direction on my way home from the local shop – and saw the Spinebill burst from the flock in a flash of bold plumage.

The Eastern Spinebill is far from being the most colourful of birds; it’s not even the most colourful of Honeyeaters, a large group that includes such resplendent species as the Scarlet Honeyeater (Myzomela sanguinolenta) and the Regent Honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) (as well as more drab species such as the Wattlebirds (Anthochaera) and Friarbirds (Philemon)).  However, with its elegantly composed plumage of chestnut and brown, black and white, the Eastern Spinebill is a handsome bird, a dapper and immediately recognisable animal – at least once a person has learned what it looks like.

The Eastern Spinebill was also the species that sparked my love of birds, about twenty years ago, when I saw one in a Grevillea bush in the front garden of my parents’ holiday house.  Without the Eastern Spinebill I may never have become a birdwatcher, and although I’ve long since let the hobby lapse, the skills I learned from birdwatching are with me to this day, and will be with me forever.

When I was a child, before I started birdwatching, I would never have noticed the Spinebill among the Sparrows.  I never would have noticed the difference in the plumage in that split-second window of identification.  As a young child I was notorious in my family for my lack of basic observational skills: if asked to find something, I’d flick my eyes over a room without engaging with that room’s contents at all.  Objects hid safely from me in plain sight, never to be discovered – at least not until somebody who actually cared to look properly took over the search from me.

Of course this is not an unusual trait in children.  We’re prone to diagnosing hyperactivity in every child we encounter these days, but we forget that a high degree of activity is a simple fact of being a child: the world is astonishing, and full of distractions; and the human body at that age is burning with energy, and the mind impatient for exploration.

When I was a child, on the cusp of adolescence, Birdwatching taught me, for the first time, to look at what was in front of me.  Not only to examine an object or a scene at leisure, but also to instantly isolate an essential detail in a fraction of a second.  Even now I can instantly recognise many Australian birds simply by the particular pattern of their flight in passing, or by the way they hold their bodies when they perch.  Birdwatching taught me also to listen to the world, to use my ears as much as my eyes to understand what was happening around me.  These are the kind of lessons that once learned cannot be unlearned; they’re the kind of lessons that overflow from the niche field from which they’re derived to fill every aspect of life.

Ever since Jonathan Franzen became a passionate birdwatcher there’s been a link in the minds of the reading public between birdwatching and writing, and I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that few things have been more important to my writing as my ten or so years of passionate birdwatching.  Like any art form, writing is as much craft as art: as much practical skills as blazing inspiration.  One of the most fundamental of those skills is observation; even the most dedicatedly autobiographical of writers must be able to understand, to some extent, the broader world in which his or her life takes place.  A writer, by inclination, is constantly watching, and noticing, and recording or remembering.  Some, inevitably, are better at it than others; I wouldn’t care to try to rank myself in such stakes against anybody else, but I know without any doubt that birdwatching has been a boon to my writing.  I’m constantly astonished by how unaware of the world most people seem to be – I can’t begin to guess at the number of times I’ve seen somebody I know on the street, and not been myself observed.  I can imagine a parallel life in which I was such a person – a person who doesn’t notice the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) flying overhead; who doesn’t notice a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) investigating a potential nest hole; who doesn’t even notice what’s happening on the other side of the world, or at the next check-out in the supermarket – and that life seems infinitely poorer than the life birdwatching has given me.

Yet it was a near-run thing.  If it had been any other bird than the Eastern Spinebill in the Grevillea bush that afternoon when I first saw the bird, twenty years ago, I may not have taken up birdwatching at all.  I may have remained the chronically unobservant person I was then.  When I picked up my parents’ copy of Slater’s field guide to the birds of Australia, and determined that the bird I was looking at was a Honeyeater, I couldn’t find anywhere in the book an illustration that matched the bird in the garden before me.  For the next two weeks I became obsessed with the bird; I fancied, in my childish way, that I’d identified a new species; I imagined fame and fortune (for how could the identification of a new species of bird not lead to such wonders?).  When I eventually found an accurate illustration of the Eastern Spinebill, in Simpson and Day’s excellent field guide, I was astonished that the venerable Slater could have got his illustration so wrong as to make the bird unidentifiable; but also, I was fascinated by all the other birds.  Flicking through the Simpson and Day field guide in Collins Bookshop in the bottom of the Canberra Centre that day in the early 1990s, I was enchanted by the hundreds of birds of all shapes and sizes, all hues and habitats, illustrated within.  I bought the book with my pocket money, and when next my parents took me to their holiday house the book came with us, displacing the ancient Slater guide.  I began eagerly identifying all the bird species I saw on the property, and listing them in the back of a slender notebook which already contained my father’s catalogue of plant species.  It would be some years more before I started to become a writer, but the skills were already being put in place.

 Image sourced and adapted from

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

43) Australian Magpie

Gymnorhina tibicen

A week ago and a half I saw an Australian Magpie harassing a Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) above a pond in a park in the inner-northern Melbourne suburb of Thornbury.  It was the sounds of the birds that first caught my attention: the Magpie’s squawks and the distinctive clapping of its sharp wing-beats; the familiar cawing of the Gull.  The Australian Magpie is essentially a large Butcherbird (Cracticidae), a family of birds found throughout Australia – the Magpie being a member of the tribe which has adapted to living in more open areas than its cousins.  Its strong-winged silhouette as it cruises in to land on a branch or on the grass, feathers ruffling in the breeze created by its purposeful and direct flight, is as distinctive as the shape of any Australian bird.

Silver Gulls are not nearly so romantic a creature as Magpies: even the name seems an affectation.  To the great majority of Australians they’re just Seagulls, or even just Gulls if they’re inland: Australia has only three species of Gull (Laridae) that are at all common and of those only the Silver Gull is an everyday sight.  It’s everywhere, and little loved: to most Australians, a Gull is just a Gull.

Magpies are scarcely less common or less familiar and yet they exist as a duality for Australians.  On the one hand, they’re one of the most feared animals in Australia, if not one of the most mortally dangerous.  Every spring, when Magpies begin to nest and breed, Australia finds itself in the grip of a phenomenon known as “swooping season”: male Magpies, with up to ten times the normal amount of testosterone flooding their bodies, become prone to ostentatiously aggressive displays of territoriality; any being – human, dog, another bird – entering the vicinity of the Magpie’s nest, however unwittingly, can become the victim of a succession of dive-bombing raids which range from stern but harmless warning shots to reckless, claw-and-beak-led physical assaults.  An old bicycle helmet of mine bore puncture marks from where a particularly zealous Magpie’s talons had penetrated the foam.  When I was a child, and less fortunate, I had to be taken to hospital to receive stitches after being swooped by Magpie.  During the Sydney Olympics of 2000 the mountain bike course was given an extra, particularly Australian challenge, when it was found that the track along which contestants were to race passed at one point beneath a tree in which a swooping Magpie had taken residence.

And yet – Magpies are also one of the most cherished of Australian birds, because they are one of Australia’s greatest and most distinctive songbirds.  Ask an Australian, especially one who is homesick, to list the most characteristic sounds of his or her homeland, and it’s almost a given that the Magpie’s song will be somewhere near the very top of that list.

It’s a beautiful song, and yet a song which if transplanted to any other part of the world would seem utterly alien.  As such it’s an extremely difficult song to describe; the nearest analogy, and one that just about everyone who hears it seems to land upon, is to a babbling brook.  Failing a description of the song, a string of adjectives may have to suffice: warbling; bubbling; carolling.

So universally beloved is the Magpie’s song that I can vividly remember a scene in an Australian movie I saw on television as a child in which the main character expressed his great disdain for the song: by doing so he instantly and efficiently delineated his hatred for his homeland; because undoubtedly one of the reasons we Australians so love the Magpie’s song is that it is so uniquely Australian.  It’s a sound we can call our own, and a bird we can call our own: its good points and bad points alike.  (The Australian Magpie, like nearly all Australian birds which are named after European birds, is not related to the European Magpie (Pica pica).)

Yet sometimes that pride can become even more specific.  When she was still alive I’d often have conversations with my paternal grandmother, when I visited her with my family or when, much less often, she crossed the country to visit us, in which we would talk about birds: those that we’d seen, those that we’d like to see.  She lived in Adelaide and I lived in Canberra, two cities half a continent apart and consequently blessed with their own particular fauna.  She delighted in talking about the “Adelaide Rosella”, actually a subspecies (subadelaidae) of the Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) which is common in Canberra; the Rosellas have, in my lifetime, been “lumped” into only a handful of species, but earlier my grandmother’s claim that the Adelaide Rosella was a unique species would probably have been scientific orthodoxy.

On one occasion we also talked about Magpies.  We were talking about the particular varieties found in our respective homes: in Canberra, the “Black-backed Magpie”, and in Adelaide, the “White-backed Magpie”, a more elegant bird as my grandmother rightfully pointed out.  Like the Adelaide Rosella these are subspecies; in fact there are up to nine subspecies of the Australian Magpie currently described, each varying slightly in their plumage from north to south of the continent, from east to west.

The fact that these varieties of Australian Magpie are subspecies and not each fully-fledged species is confirmed by a simple test: in those parts of the country where two subspecies meet, the individuals of those subspecies freely interbreed, and their offspring remain fertile.  I read exactly that in the first bird field guide I ever bought, the magnificent Simpson and Day, but even if I hadn’t read it I could have deduced it myself given time: it just so happens that the border between White-backed Magpies and Black-backed Magpies is located just outside Canberra, and though within Canberra Black-backed Magpies are overwhelmingly dominant, it’s not unheard of to sometimes see White-backed Magpies in the city; moreover, hybrid birds are common, and in Canberra it’s possible to see Magpies whose backs display plumage that’s intermediate between the two subspecies: birds with a stretch of white which reaches three-quarters of the way down their back, or halfway down their back, or barely at all.

When I was growing up I used to feel a strange kind of thrill in seeing such birds, and if I’m honest I still find it a little exciting today.  Written knowledge had an intoxicating power over me as a child, as I think it does over all children – I can recall devouring books when I was in school at a rate that astonishes me to recall today – and the fact that I read about the hybridisation of Australian Magpies, and then was able to literally step outside the door of my parents’ house and see evidence of that hybridisation myself, was extraordinary.

It was such observations, and the excitement I felt at making them, that led me to study biology at university.  For an eighteen-year-old, deciding what specialisation his or her life is going to take is a heady task, and I remember clearly the choice I faced and the process by which I arrived at the decision.  I’d always been interesting in animals, and in biology; yet reading and literature were just as dear to me.  All though high school I’d studied as much of one as the other.  When I enrolled in university, though, I decided that I could pursue literature at my own leisure: biology, on the other hand, was something I felt had to be taught to me.

Still, I remained interested in both, and whenever I could I took the odd class in English literature, or in philosophy.  As I progressed through university, though, I became increasingly uneasy with the conflict I perceived between the scientific and the artistic approaches to reflecting upon the world.  To me it seemed that the two were in a fundamental and intractable conflict with each-other: art, it seemed, revered the inherent mystery of the universe; science abhorred that mystery, and sought to resolve it.  In short: art was romantic, and science was rational; the two could not coexist.

Now I see that there are deep flaws in such simplistic thinking.  For starters, the universe is so vast that to suppose that humanity will ever lack for mysteries to wonder at is hubristic in the extreme.  Even as science provides the answer to one question, that answer only leads to several more questions: scientific pursuit is much like the proverbial turtles upon which the earth supposedly rests: what’s beneath the turtle?  Why, it’s another turtle.  And beneath that?  It’s turtles, all the way down.  What’s at the heart of the mysteries of the universe?  Another mystery, and another, and another.

More arrestingly, though, as I’ve grown older I’ve come to see that science provides a meaning to life, if such meaning can be arrived at at all: not because it explains the purpose of life, but because it explains the position of life.  Through science we’re able to perceive our place in the world: how we relate to every other life form on the planet, how we’re all bound together by the same forces acting blindly around us.  It’s not music, it’s not literature, it’s barely even philosophy – but for all that it’s not, it’s no less grand or romantic.  Within the infinite and subtle variations of the colouration of a Magpie’s back, there exists some speck of insight into the sheer wonder of the world we live in.

Image sourced from