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 http://en.wikipedia.org