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

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