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 http://www.birdlife.org.au/