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"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Sunday, July 29, 2012

52) Cockatiel

Nymphicus hollandicus

Winter’s not typically a great time for bird-watching.  Far from the spring breeding season birds are quiet, and undemonstrative, and often drab in colour.  Furthermore, winter skies are often cloudy, overcast, and against such a backdrop birds become mere silhouettes: in the diffuse light the colour and detail of their plumage becomes almost completely lost, and a bird-watcher has to rely on observing the shape, size, and habit of a bird much more closely in order to identify it.  Recognising a bird by such fine details requires a particularly practiced eye, and long familiarity with the bird in question: an unfamiliar bird seen in brief silhouette against a flat grey sky can be a baffling vision.

It was beneath just such a sky that I was hanging out a load of washing one afternoon last week.  Despite the sky the temperature was mild, and there was no threat of rain, and it was pleasant to be outside even in the service of such a mundane task.

When I heard an unfamiliar bird call I instinctively looked up, and I saw a shape pass swiftly through my field of vision: dark against the clouds, long-tailed, short-headed, with wings that came to a fine tapering point.  As well as muting colours, overcast skies also make it difficult to judge accurately the distance of objects, and thus their size.  I knew this bird above me was too small to be a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), so I surmised that it must be an Australian Hobby (Falco longipennis), also known as a Little Falcon.  I listened for the sound of panicked birds which would confirm the presence of such a predator; all I could hear was a group of Noisy Miners (Manorina melanocephala) making a commotion.  Noisy Miners, though, are always making a commotion.

Soon I heard another sound, beside the Noisy Miners: it was the same call that had first caught my attention, but coming from a second bird; what’s more, the first bird was calling back to it.  So, I thought, this is what Australian Hobbies sound like.  Falcons are not songbirds, not by any stretch, but all raptors have a particular call with which they communicate with their fellows.  The call I was hearing, shrill, loud, repeated without variation, made a plausible Falcon’s call.  Even more excitingly, the calls of both birds were coming from a static point: the birds were perched, and no more than fifty metres from my house.  Realising that raptors rarely perch for long, I decided to set off to find them.

Though I rushed inside to put my shoes on, by the time I left the house only the second bird was calling, and worried that it too would soon stop I hurried ’round the corner of my street towards the entrance to an old bluestone alley which would take me closer to the bird.  On the powerlines outside the house there, beneath the leafless but bud-laden branches of a magnolia, was a petite, yellow-headed, grey-bodied bird that I’d never seen in Melbourne before but which I recognised instantly: a Cockatiel.

I realised immediately the mistake I’d made.  Cockatiels are parrots, and a typical parrot in flight is fast, with a long tail, and a short head, and wings that taper to a fine point.  Still, it seemed ridiculous to have mistaken such a slender bird for a sturdy Falcon, even one as small as a Hobby.  But I’d seen Hobbies in Melbourne – more reliable sightings, on clearer days – and I’d never seen a Cockatiel in Melbourne, at least not in the wild.  Cockatiels are birds of the interior, of desserts and of mallee woodland.  They’re not birds that anybody would ordinarily expect to see in the middle of a large city on the southernmost edge of mainland Australia.

At least, not in the wild; not sitting on a power-line.  Cockatiels are a very popular caged bird, however, not just in Australia but throughout the world – so much so that it’s safe to say that, as with the Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus), more people have probably seen Cockatiels in a cage than have seen them in the wild.  Was that the provenance of this pair of Cockatiels I found – the bird I saw, and the one I heard?  Were they escapees?  Birds escape from cages, of course they do; when I was a child I owned, against my better judgement, a pair of Budgies; both escaped – one by its own ingenuity, and the other after I remorsefully left the cage door open until it fled.  It’s impossible for me to say whether the fact that the Cockatiels I observed were apparently a pair made it more or less likely that they were escapees; but much as I’d like it to be otherwise, the fact that they were in inner-city Melbourne, of all places, suggests that they were not wild birds.

Yet it’s not as improbable as it may seem that a species from the arid inland could find its way to Melbourne.  If I walk through the parkland around Merri Creek, just a few blocks from my house, as often as not I’ll see a scattering of Galahs (Eolophus roseicapillus) and Crested Pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes); when I go to Albert Park on Sunday afternoons to play touch football I’m often distracted by the distinctive chirping, wailing call of Long-billed Corellas (Cacatua tenuirostris).  Corellas are archetypal country birds, the bane of farmers.  Galahs and Crested Pigeons are both birds more commonly associated with dry, open areas.  Yet each of these species has in recent years made itself at home in the cities of Australia’s south.  Amid the introduced House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis), and Domestic Pigeons (Columba livia domestica), it’s a delight to see native birds: in an era of ever-increasing awareness of the deleterious effects on native wildlife of human activity, the site of a Crested Pigeon or a Galah, each of them uniquely and distinctively Australian, can lift the spirits and reassure a worried mind.

As paradoxical as it may seem, though, the presence of a native bird is not in itself a good sign.  Some, such as Noisy Miners, are aggressively territorial, and gradually push other species out of an area until they are the only birds left; others, such as the Galahs, and the Crested Pigeons, and the Corellas – and perhaps now Cockatiels, too – are not so obviously problematic, but their presence is nonetheless troubling.

For these birds are not where they should be.  Let me explain the situation as it has unfolded in Canberra, the city where I’ve spent the greater part of my life so far: forty years ago, so I’ve read, Galahs were unheard of in Canberra; yet for my entire life they’ve been commonplace.  In my childhood one of the things that excited me about going to visit relatives in Adelaide was the opportunity to see Crested Pigeons, a lovely bird which was never seen in Canberra; until one year I saw one.  Then the next year, again: a single sighting, perhaps two.  I kept seeing the bird like that, extremely rarely, over the next several years; yet their numbers were increasing, incrementally, almost imperceptibly.  I still recall the day when I walked to the end of the street on which I lived and saw on the powerlines there no fewer than seventeen Crested Pigeons; now, fifteen or twenty years later, the birds are so common in Canberra as to be completely unremarkable.  The same pattern has repeated itself with Little Corellas (Cacatua sanguinea): none at all when I was a child, and the thought of seeing Corellas as far east as Canberra was absurd; then, when I was at university, the odd bird every now and then flying with a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita).  Escapees, it was said: a bird or two, once caged, now free.  Yet their numbers kept increasing, until it was clear that they couldn’t all be escapees; now they no longer fly with the Cockatoos, but are numerous enough to form flocks of their own.

What these birds all have in common is that none of them are birds of the forests.  They’re all birds that prefer to live in sparsely wooded areas, feeding on seeds and grain.  They’re all, in short, birds that are more than happy to spread into areas that were once wooded but which have now been cleared for farming.  They’re birds that have spread because their particular habitat has increased; yet that increase has come through the destruction of other habitats, home to other birds.

When I was at university a story was related to us about the Eastern Barred Bandicoot (Perameles gunnii).  The Victorian subspecies of the Eastern Barred Bandicoot is critically endangered, making protection of making protection of it a matter of high priority in those few areas where it’s still found.  Sometimes this protection must come at the cost of other species: in one remnant habitat it was found that Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus), one of the most common mammals in Australia, were outcompeting the Bandicoots for food; it was determined that the Kangaroos must be culled, for the greater good.  Yet that did not sit well with local environmental groups, and such was the outrage at the killing of a native animal – even to the benefit of another – that the plan was abandoned.  The Kangaroos were spared; the Bandicoots disappeared from the area completely, unable to compete with the much larger and much more common Kangaroos for the grass on which both species fed.

When I was at university a story was related to us about the Eastern Barred Bandicoot (Perameles gunnii).  The Victorian subspecies of the Eastern Barred Bandicoot is critically endangered, making protection of making protection of it a matter of high priority in those few areas where it’s still found.  Sometimes this protection must come at the cost of other species: in one remnant habitat it was found that Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus), one of the most common mammals in Australia, were outcompeting the Bandicoots for food; it was determined that the Kangaroos must be culled, for the greater good.  Yet that did not sit well with local environmental groups, and such was the outrage at the killing of a native animal – even to the benefit of another – that the plan was abandoned.  The Kangaroos were spared; the Bandicoots disappeared from the area completely, unable to compete with the much larger and much more common Kangaroos for the grass on which both species fed.

The Eastern Grey Kangaroo is a beautiful animal.  So, too, are Galahs, and Corellas, and Crested Pigeons.  Each species of animal is beautiful in its way, and to see an animal in the wild is a constant joy.  It sits ill in the mind to think that a wild animal should not be where it is, that is presence may be more calamity than bounty.  It’s easier not to think about it at all.  I still smile whenever I see a Crested Pigeon, its tail flicking high in the air as it alights on a perch and the metallic panels on its wings shining and shimmering in the sun.  I still feel a little wildness touch my heart when I hear the shrill, cracked-bell like call of a Galah flying overhead in its haphazard manner.  I fancy that I can still, a week after observing them, hear the Cockatiels calling to each-other from the rooftops behind my house.  What those calls mean, what their provenance is, I can’t say.  It’s nice to imagine that the birds calling in joy at their newfound freedom, having flown from a cage somewhere.  It would be nice, too, to imagine that they’ve never been caged at all, that their lives have been entirely wild and free.  But it would be troubling to think about how, if that is the case, they may have found themselves in Melbourne, in a place they have no business being.

Image sourced from

Saturday, July 14, 2012

51) Wolverine

Gulo gulo

A couple of years ago, on the slopes of a steep hill high above an alpine valley in Sweden’s Abisko National Park, my father and I stumbled upon what was one of the most astonishing, mesmerising, and unsettling sights I’ve ever seen in the natural world.  Far below us on the valley floor was the small and simple hut we were staying in, its triple-glazed windows and thick wooden walls creating within the building at atmosphere of close snugness and absolute silence; beyond where we were standing, on the plateau of the hill we’d scrambled up, was an immense boulder field, imposing beneath the flat grey sky and dotted with occasional thick drifts of autumn snow; and between the snow and the hut, beneath a rocky overhang by which we stood for a few uneasy moments, were hundreds upon hundreds of bones.

All the bones were stripped bare, though some were still reddened with the last traces of unlicked blood and occasional tufts of matted, bloodied fur were visible amidst the ruination.  Some of the bones were clearly from Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus): among the assorted ribs and vertebrae and leg bones, antlers stood out like trees in a field; some of the antlers were still attached to skulls and some were not.  In fact it’s probable that most of the bones were from Reindeer: they were too large, those I dared to look at, to belong to any other prey animal in that environment, though Reindeer were certainly not the only such creature to be found in those Arctic hills: a few days earlier my father and I had frightened an Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus), which but for its nervous flight from us would have remained unseen.

We didn’t linger by the bones.  I can’t speak for my father but I didn’t want to linger: the red of blood nearly luminescent in that colourless landscape indicated that the lair was still in use, and though as a human I had little to fear, there is, at the sight of so much conspicuous death, a visceral disquiet which is more ancient and more pervasive than logic or rationality.  I was appalled and yet fascinated; each in equal measure, if not to equal effect.  We continued on our way, our walk into the hills only a short one to explore the small valley, and of what we’d seen barely a word was spoken.

Though we’d caught no glimpse of the animal that had wrought such destruction, we took it to be a Wolverine.  A few days earlier, in the large hostel-cum-lodge built alongside the railway line that takes thousands of skiers and hikers into Abisko National Park every year, we’d chatted over a meal to a couple of Swedish scientists who were taking water samples from Torne träsk, one of Sweden’s largest lakes and a body of water whose shores the National Park abuts.  The scientists were cheerful: though they were in the area for work, the water of the lake was so extraordinarily clean that analysis of it was more like a holiday for them.  In the fluent English that most Scandinavians under the age of fifty seem to possess, they told us about their work and their lives and about the life amid Swedish nature in general; one of the things they told us about was Wolverines.

The Wolverine, they told us, is an animal that is particularly shy of humans, despite being a ferocious hunter, and so it’s rarely seen – and if seen, usually only glimpsed for a moment.  Yet despite its reserve it’s an animal that is despised by the Reindeer herders who populate the Arctic regions of Europe – from Norway through Sweden and Finland to Russia – most of whom are the indigenous Sami people: the Wolverine is an unforgiving killer, and our Swedish companions that day told us that in heavy snow, when Reindeer with their narrow feet are bogged down, the smaller, broad-footed Wolverine is able to run across the surface of the snow and kill entire herds.  It’s said that a Wolverine will kill many more Reindeer than it will eat, and I wonder if, aside from loss of income, it’s a sense of waste in a land of sometimes extreme scarcity that so outrages the Reindeer herders: traditionally, the Sami have used every part of a Reindeer they’ve killed: the meat for eating; the fur for clothing; the sinew for string; the bones for tools.  Such frugality is not necessary now, in a world of modern materials, modern comforts, and modern affluence, but cultural memory is long-lasting and pervasive.

Wanting to play my part in the conversation, I mentioned to our Swedish companions my understanding that the Wolverine was the largest of the Weasels (Mustelidae).  The Swedes looked at me doubtfully, and said that they didn’t think so, and though I knew it to be true I demurred to their opinion; after all, the Wolverine was of their country, and they ought to have known more about it than me – it was a small point, and there was no need to embarrass them.

The Wolverine, though, is indeed one of the Weasels, a group of animals which has long been of particular fascination to me because of both their beauty and their elusiveness – and because of their ferocity: again, there’s that delicate balance between fright and fascination.  Death is never more overt or more horrifying than in the act of one animal killing another; and death is never less than hypnotic.  Unlike Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), Hares (Lepus europaeus), Pigs (Sus scrofa), Cats (Felis catus), and many others, Weasels were never introduced to Australia, other than the odd pet Ferret (Mustela putorius furo).  New Zealand was not so fortunate: there, Stoats (Mustela erminea) have had a devastating effect on a native bird population unaccustomed to mammalian predators, and since their introduction to control rabbits in the late nineteenth century they’ve been implicated in the extinction of numerous species.

Though the Wolverine remains invisible, I have had the good fortune to see two members of the Mustelidae.  The most recent was in 2003, coincidentally also when I was on a trip with my father.  We were driving in the Scottish highlands and a Pine Marten (Martes martes) dashed across the road in front of us.  Though we stopped the car to search for it, by the time we did so it had disappeared into the long grass on the road’s verge.

The other Mustelid I’ve seen, and an animal which until writing this I had not even realised was related to the Weasels, is the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris).  Years ago, when I was a child, my family and I went on a round-the-world trip.  It was the one and only time thus far that I’ve ever been to the USA: we went to visit friends who were then living in Berkeley, just outside San Francisco, and we took a trip south to Monterey Bay, of which I remember nothing except that we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and that en route we took a detour to go and see Sea Otters.  My older brother and I broke away from our parents, stepped beyond the protective rail atop the cliffs, and gazed over the edge to get a better look: there, far below, we saw a Sea Otter lying on its back in the Pacific Ocean, hammering open a Sea Urchin (Echinoidea) on a flat rock which it rested on its belly.  In the lead-up to the trip we’d absorbed every piece of information we could about Sea Otters, and this is the first time I can recall having seen a wild animal exhibiting behaviour which I had previously read about or seen on TV.  I remained enraptured by Sea Otters for years afterwards.  Though the destruction of that Sea Urchin is just as brutal as the killing of Reindeer by a Wolverine, somehow it seems less so: perhaps it’s merely that the Sea Urchin has no bones, no face, no resemblance to us humans at all: and so its death is more abstract, less horrifying.  Perhaps the Sea Otter is just a more attractive animal than its terrestrial cousin.

One last thing about Wolverines, a coda: when I was a child the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at the height of their popularity.  The cartoon was on TV seemingly every day; my best friend in primary school had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles computer game which was almost the sole reason for me visiting his house every afternoon after school.  By the time I got to high school the fad had waned, but like any once deeply-held passion a lingering affection for it remained within me.  I was by then interested in more sophisticated, though no less fantastical, distractions, and I dabbled in tabletop gaming and in role-playing games.  One of my best friends at the time brought into school one day a role-playing game based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and he and I and several other friends all spent an afternoon playing it.  We each had to create a character, and each character had to be some kind of mutant animal; through circumstances I can no longer remember, my character was a Wolverine.  It was the first time I’d ever heard of the animal, and I had no idea what it looked like – but it was vivid in my imagination, all the same.  It still is, now, years later, though I’ve never seen one and probably never will.

Image sourced from

Friday, July 6, 2012

50) Superb Fairy-wren

Malurus cyaneus

There can scarcely be an Australian bird more beloved than the Superb Fairy-wren; there’s certainly no Australian bird that has been more studied.  The Superb Fairy-wren is an endlessly endearing creature, the most familiar of the nine species of Fairy-wren (Malurus spp) found in Australia.  Some measure of the beauty of these tiny birds is suggested by the names of three of them: in addition to the Superb Fairy-wren there are also the Lovely Fairy-wren (Malurus amabilis) and the Splendid Fairy-wren (M. splendens); names alone, however, cannot convey the immense charm of these birds.

Most Fairy-wrens are more colloquially known as “Blue Wrens”, a name derived from the stunning blue plumage worn by adult males during the breeding season.  Leading into and out of the breeding season it’s possible to see male Fairy-wrens in mid-moult, the drab brown feathers of winter coming in or out, and a bird at this stage of its life presents a sorry sight: it has a mottled and moth-eaten appearance, with all the dignity of an old winter coat forgotten in the back of a wardrobe.  When the breeding feathers fully emerge, though, the birds are – well, lovely.  Splendid.  Superb.

Outside the breeding season, and when not moulting, male Superb Fairy-wrens are as sweetly unassuming as their female counterparts, with dusky brown plumage that is always immaculate.  Only the beak, face, and tail differentiate the two sexes in winter: the male’s beak, in the Fairy-wrens a dainty appendage, is always black to the females’ red; females wear a demure ochre-red facemask over their eyes; and the long, cheerfully cocked tail, which in females is brown, in males retains the vivid deep blue of their breeding plumage all year round, the only part of the animal to do so.

At some stage of maturity, however, males stop moulting out of their breeding plumage, instead remaining in their startling blue uniforms year-round.  Is this a blessing or a curse?  For a tiny bird such as the Superb Fairy-wren, measuring only fourteen centimetres long and with half of that length being tail, reaching such an advanced age must be regarded as some kind of an achievement: the average life expectancy of a Superb Fairy-wren is only two years.  Furthermore, it’s known that female Superb Fairy-wrens find those males who moult into their blue plumage the earliest to be the most attractive, and how could a male don his blue earlier than by never taking it off?  However, once a male stops moulting his chances of survival must drop: nothing in the Australian bush stands out quite as vividly as a Fairy-wren’s blue feathers.

So it is a risk.  Fair-wrens may forage ceaselessly for insects and other small invertebrates, but they themselves are not so far from the bottom of the food-chain, and perhaps not surprisingly they seem to see predators everywhere.  Among the various songs and vocalisations the Superb Fairy-wren utters, there’s a particular song which is made only by the males, and only upon the sighting of a threat: when a predatory bird flies overhead, a male Superb Fairy-wren will fly to the top of the nearest bush, exposing himself while his fellows take shelter, and sing a loud, sustained trill for all the forest to hear.  Exactly why he does this is unclear – there are other, entirely different, calls made by both male and female Superb Fairy-wrens to warn of danger, and indeed Superb Fairy-wrens are known to be able to learn to recognise the warning calls of other birds, and react appropriately to them – but it may be that the performance – what else to call it? – allows the male to boast about his prowess, his fitness and fearlessness in the presence of mortal danger.  Certainly male Superb Fairy-wrens seem overly eager to announce a “threat”: I’ve seen them launch themselves up shrubs and holler to the sky at the appearance overhead of any bird that looks even vaguely like a Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) or any of the other birds that feed on Superb Fairy-wrens or on their eggs; most astonishingly, I’ve seen male Superb Fairy-wrens react in this way to the presence of Galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla), which must be one of the least threatening of all Australian birds.

It wouldn’t be surprising if this whole display was done simply in an attempt to impress females: impressing potential mates is a considerable part of most vertebrates’ lives.  An animal must find a partner, somehow convincing that individual of his or her fitness; any resulting children must then be raised, and in order to do so feeding territories must be established and defended.  However, these are the least of the complications in the Superb Fairy-wren’s breeding behaviour.

Superb Fairy-wrens breed cooperatively, with small groups of birds defending a territory together and each helping to raise any young born in that territory.  These groups consist of a dominant, breeding male and female, and a handful of subordinates; at night the birds all roost on a branch tight by each-other’s sides.  The subordinates are all males: females, once their old enough, are forced to leave the territory and find a place of their own.

Each of the subordinate birds in the group will have been born in that territory: each is at home.  However this does not necessarily mean that each is the offspring of the dominant male: despite males and females forming apparently close life-long bonds, Superb Fairy-wrens are extraordinarily promiscuous, and male and female birds alike will each take whatever opportunity they can find to sneak away from their small territory and mate with their neighbours.  So it’s not at all unlikely that a dominant male will raise some other bird’s offspring; all the while, his offspring are being raised elsewhere.

We know so much about Superb Fairy-wrens because the Botany and Zoology Department of the Australian National University in Canberra has the good fortune to be nearly adjacent to the Australian National Botanic Gardens, which takes up a large part of the foot of Black Mountain and which, being planted thickly with Australian native plants from all over the country, is host to a rich array of native birds – not least a large and thriving population of Superb Fairy-wrens.  Researchers at the ANU have been studying the wrens for many years; when I was an undergraduate in the department I played my part, too, being led with my classmates to conduct radio-tracking studies on wrens outside the breeding season.  The hypothesis was that they would do little, and as we stood outside dense thickets of shrubbery for hours on end, pointing the radio-receiver at the unseen and motionless birds within, the hypothesis seemed a solid one.

What I’ve presented above are only the most basic details of the Superb Fairy-wren’s behaviour.  There is much more that we now know about this beautiful bird.  Of all the facts about the Superb Fairy-wren’s life that have been discovered over the years, none is more charming than one small detail of the male’s courtship behaviour: while wooing a potential mate, either in his territory or in somebody else’s, a male Superb Fairy-wren will pluck petals from a flower and present them to the female as a kind of bouquet.  Whether this increases his chances of mating or not, I don’t know; but it’s hard not to smile at the thought of this tiny, colourful bird carrying such an offering.

The Superb Fairy-wren is neither uncommon nor unusual: if I walk a few blocks from my house to Merri Creek I’ve got a good chance of seeing one, even in the middle of a city as large as Melbourne; if I travel to any other part of Australia, even the central deserts, I’ll be likely to encounter one of its close relatives.  Yet this small and in many ways unobtrusive bird has been shown to lead a life of extraordinary complexity and richness.  If the Superb Fairy-wren seems more interesting than other animals, it’s only because it’s been more studied; how can we begin to imagine what other lives might be being led, by all the animals we encounter but scarcely stop to consider every single day?  There are millions of species of animal on earth, certainly more than we know of, many whose existence is scarcely credible; and animals are only one form of life, and it would be foolish to think that plants, or fungi, or bacteria, are in their way any less extraordinary or fascinating.  If one stops to consider for even a moment the astounding implications of this, the overwhelming variety and complexity of life on this planet – I honestly think one would find it literally impossible to feel bored ever again.

Image sourced from

Monday, July 2, 2012

49) Magpie-lark

Grallina cyanoleuca

It’s been a cold start to winter this year in Melbourne.  As I began writing this post on Friday the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s website recorded the temperature as 9.3 degrees Centigrade, with an apparent temperature of only 6.1 – not that I needed the confirmation, having been outside for previous two hours, watching the Melbourne Rebels play the Queensland Reds in the annual Super 15 Rugby tournament.  Across the road beneath the blazing lights of the Melbourne Cricket Ground Carlton were playing Hawthorn in the Australian Football League.  The wind is blowing sudden screes of rain across Melbourne’s broad storm-grey roads; leaves fallen weeks ago have turned muddy and brown in bluestone-cobbled back alleys; the city is dark shortly after five PM.  It’s winter, and those who still like to call Melbourne “Bleak City” have their justification.

Here on the southern edge of the Australian mainland, well below the snowline but far from the equator, winter usually takes two forms: it can be clear blue skies and mild temperatures by day but icy at night as all the heat of the day escapes into the open air; or it can be cloudy and dark and cold during the day but more moderate than one might expect by night, as what heat is present is trapped by the clouds.  In recent weeks, as meteorologists predict a return of the dry El Nińo weather pattern later in the year, Melbourne has seen more of the former than of the latter, and consequently nights throughout June have routinely dropped below ten degrees.

If I didn’t live by myself I might not leave the house; as it is it sometimes takes a great effort of will, even for somebody such as myself who loves winter more than any other season, to force myself away from the comfort of my gas-heated sitting-room and venture out into the cold night to go to a gig, go to a movie, go to a bar.  Put on my gloves, put on my scarf, put on my jacket, get on my bike and hope the wind isn’t too biting.

Riding back home last week at around midnight I noticed out of the corner of my eye a cluster of unusual shapes in the branches of a plane tree: white blobs, like plastic bags, pallid and ghostly in the moonlight.  I continued riding for a few metres but my curiosity quickly got the better of me, and I braked and doubled back to take another look.

They were three Magpie-larks.  The Magpie-lark is a bird whose name says something about the confusion surrounding its provenance: sharing with many birds a black-and-white colouration, it nonetheless looks essentially unlike any other Australian bird species.  For a long time it was considered to be related to the mud-nesters, a loose group containing only two species, the White-winged Chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos) and the Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea): though the Magpie-lark is substantially smaller than either of these two birds and does not share their social behaviour, the nests it builds are similar enough to have made their own persuasive argument.  More recently, however, DNA testing has suggested that Magpie-larks are a kind of large, terrestrial Monarch Flycatcher (Monarchidae), though to look at them there’s no apparent similarity.

As if to add to the confusion, the Magpie-lark is known by a host of names; it’s distributed Australia-wide and wherever you go you’re likely to find people calling it something different: my South Australian grandmother called them “Murray Magpies”; many people know them as Mudlarks; in Canberra and many other places they’re universally known as Peewees, a name derived from their distinctive call (another name, “Peewit”, has the same origin).

In contrast to all this confusion, the Magpie-lark displays a notable and admirable clarity in the pattern of its plumage: just by looking at an individual Magpie-lark it’s possibly to tell whether it’s an adult male, an adult female, or an immature bird.  Each has a distinct and immediately apparent pattern of facial markings: black throat and horizontal eye-stripe for males; white throat and vertical eye-stripe for females; white throat but horizontal stripe for immature birds.

Few people realise that Magpie-larks can be so differentiated, but nonetheless, and regardless of the fact that many people mistake them for baby Magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen), the Magpie-lark is an immediately recognisable bird and one that’s familiar to every Australian.  Indeed it’s one of those animals that’s thrived under human settlement of the country, and is as comfortable living in urban areas as it is living in the bush; as comfortable in the damp south as it is in the arid inland.  The Magpie-lark’s success, alongside that of other birds such as Galahs (Eolophus roseicapillus), Corellas (Cacatua        sanguinea and C. tenuirostris), Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus), and Crested Pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes), paints a more complex and confusing picture of the interrelations between humans and our non-human kin than is may be apparent from examining Australia’s catastrophic history of species extinction since human, and particularly European, settlement.

Yet it would be misleading to take comfort from the success of any one species, or even a handful of species, because the number of Australian native animals that have become extinct or endangered in the last two-hundred years is catastrophic: the Department of the Environment refers to the extinction of over fifty known animal species, with a shocking 310 species “at risk of disappearing forever.”

In my mind I come back to those three Magpie-larks, in the tree late at night.  They were sleeping, and I didn’t want to disturb them by lingering for longer than was necessary: I paused, I admired them, and then I continued on my way.  Huddled asleep as they were I couldn’t see their faces, but it’s tempting – and not too much of a stretch – to imagine that they were a family, male, female, and a young one.  They were plump and white, their feathers fluffed and their bodies hunched against the cold.  They looked strange in the bare branches of the foreign plane tree, as if in an evergreen eucalypt they may have found more shelter against the icy June air: with no leaves to hide them they looked exposed and vulnerable, and their existence seemed as fragile as frost on grass on a winter morning.

Image sourced from