Two or three summers ago while visiting my family in Canberra I was walking through the suburb of Narrabundah, at whose eponymous college I’d spent the last two years of high-school, when a piping, piercing song caught my attention. I knew what it was immediately, I’d heard it often enough before – but even so I didn’t believe my ears at first: even in Canberra, the “bush capital”, it seemed too urban a setting for such a forest-loving bird. Yet there it was, in the top of a small eucalypt planted as a street tree: a male Golden Whistler, as cheerfully bright a songbird as exists, singing his song against the wide blue Australian sky.
Like many birds the Golden Whistler shows a strong sexual dimorphism: the females are unremarkable, their plumage various shades of brown; but the males are as colourful as their name suggests. With yellow torso, olive-green wings, white cheeks and black hood and throat-ring they look remarkably like the Great Tits (Parus major) of the Northern Hemisphere – but they’re considerably larger, and seem somehow neater and cleaner and more pleasing in their colouration: bespoke plumage, to the Great Tit’s off-the-rack attire. They’re common throughout the forests of south-eastern Australia – but never so common that seeing them can be taken for granted, and happening upon them is always a pleasure.
I wouldn’t normally have been walking through Narrabundah but it was a nice day and I was on my way from Manuka to Fyshwick, where my mother and brother had recently opened a small patisserie. My brother had abandoned an unloved engineering degree to become a pastry chef, and my mother was supposed to have retired – but retirement isn’t what it used to be. “The best laid schemes…” On my walk I’d passed Narrabundah College, where I’d almost become one of the first students to complete a combined major-minor in biology – before bad grades, the fallout of unremarkable teenage rebellion and angst, had forced me to drop the subject at the death and by doing so game the system, boosting my Tertiary Entrance Rank to 61.4. I needed 60 to be eligible to study science at the Australian National University. I scraped in.
I stuck the science degree out, graduated, even managed an honours degree of sorts from the Department of Botany and Zoology – BoZo, as it was known – but I wasn’t even half way through my degree before I realised that I’d never make it as a scientist. It turns out that a childhood of absorbing every David Attenborough documentary the Australian Broadcasting Authority screened wasn’t enough to make a biologist: you needed a head for numbers, too. I’ve never had that – words are my thing, but you can’t write your way out of a statistical analysis of genetic diversity within a given cohort of animals.
But that’s another blog post for another time. Back to Golden Whistlers, because I stray too often on this blog and I’m haunted by a sense of disrespect towards the animals I used for my own imaginings. In the second or third years of my degree I volunteered to help one of BoZo’s PhD students trap birds in the Australian National Botanic Gardens, just over the road from the department. I rode through icy Canberra mornings along the lake from my parents’ house, twenty minutes from Yarralumla to the university; I passed lively European Hares (Lepus europaeus) at Lennox Gardens, marvelled as those shy animals scattered from my bike in such numbers as I’d never seen before. Arriving at the university at dawn I’d get in the student’s van and we’d drive the deparment’s nets over to the Gardens, and there we’d set them up: mist nets, named because they’re as fine as vapour; once they’re up you can only really spot them by the poles that hold them vertical – or, after a few minutes, by the birds that hang suspended in their soft embrace. You have to remember where you’ve strung the nets, and check each one no less frequently than every twenty minutes, because other birds – Laughing Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), for instance – will take the opportunity to pluck the helpless birds from the net and eat them.
You get a lot of by-catch with mist-netting, and most of the work is in releasing the unwanted species. We were netting for Speckled Warblers (Pyrrholaemus sagittatus) but we caught anything that happened to be flying where we’d strung the nets. One time we caught a Common Bronzewing (Phaps chalcoptera), and as it flapped to free itself from the net the pigeon released great clouds of downy feathers. It was low to the ground, at the bottom of the net: any lower and it would’ve gone right under.
And one time we caught a Golden Whistler. A male, bright as can be. I could hold him in my hand – his head between my index and middle fingers, his legs between my ring and little fingers, his wings cupped in my palm, that’s how I the PhD student showed me to do it – and when I held him his feathers were softer than anything I’d ever touched, and the mass of his body was almost nothing. We don’t realise how light birds are: a Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) weighs only around ten grams; a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) only a few kilograms.
But the Golden Whistler didn’t want to be held. He was scared or he was fed up or likely he was both and as I extracted him from the net he turned his head in my grasp and gave me a resounding bite. He clamped his short black beak firmly on the fleshy part of my finger and applied all the pressure he could. What a privilege, to be bitten by a wild bird! I probably exclaimed, in surprise as much as in pain, and I finished untangling him and set him on his way. The impression of his beak upon my finger lingered for a while.
That’s all there is, just a distant memory of being bitten by a songbird. That’s all I’m really writing about here. I barely even remember how it felt now; I remember only the fact of it having happened, once. What I wouldn’t give to have been older, and more aware of the fleetingness of each instant of life, and to have felt the moment just a little more keenly, to have been bitten more to my core. But things don’t go to plan, I guess, least of all in hindsight. Still, every time I see a Golden Whistler singing from his perch I can content myself with the thought: once, just once, we were joined – in enmity, true, but joined.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org