We now know that birds, and bird song, originated in that part of Gondwana that is now Australia, which is why this continent and its neighbours are so richly endowed with species – the pigeon and parrot tribes, for example, reached their greatest diversity in this region.
I have admired birds ever since I can remember; the first – and only – request I ever made of Father Christmas was for a galah. All my life I have watched them, kept them, talked to them and marvelled at their diversity, their beauty and their intelligence. And during this, the time of endless burning, I weep for them.
Because I weep for them today, I want to remember the joy they have given me over the years, so I will share a magic interlude nearly forty years ago. It happened in and around a tamarisk tree growing outside a pickers’ hut on a dried-grape block in Coomealla district, New South Wales, near the town of Dareton and not far from where the Murray River is joined by the now imperilled Darling, and featured a tribe of Apostle birds (Struthidea cinerea) and a not-very-bright Collared sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus).
Meet the Apostle bird, so named because a popular, though unfounded, belief has it that it is always found in groups of twelve. It is also known as lousy jack, happy jack, grey jumper, and CWA bird, this last a somewhat derogatory reference to its habit of constantly chattering, putting the less charitable in mind of a Country Women’s Association meeting. It is a mud-nest builder and, like so many of Australia’s birds, raises the young communally, a dominant pair breeding and the rest of the tribe helping to feed the offspring – a very useful strategy in Australia’s erratic climate. They are also solicitous of each other. Feeding a group of youngsters in my backyard one day – their babysitter was perched on the clothesline – I noticed that if the smallest of the brood flapped its wings, its larger siblings would immediately offer food.
They are, like most birds, very intelligent. They also have a sense of humour.
On that day at Coomealla, my then partner/fellow picker and I were sitting on the rickety bench outside the hut, when a tribe of Apostle birds came swaggering up to fossick under the Atholl pine, as tamarisks are called in those parts. They knew us well, so we were pretty much ignored apart from the occasional derogatory remark when a fierce stare failed to produce a handout.
They’d not long been there when a Collared sparrowhawk flew on to the scene, immediately diving into the thick cover of the tamarisk’s higher branches. Rather than flee, a likely fatal manoeuvre, the tribe went into what can only be described as a war dance. Spreading their wings above their backs, they stamped their feet, fluttered and bowed, and raised a cacophony of squawks, causing the sparrowhawk to shift uncomfortably on its perch and peer intently at the dancers as if to see which of this seemingly demented tribe posed the greatest threat.
While its gaze was fixed on the centre of the rowdy mob, the bird closest to the tree quietly slipped around to the other side of the trunk and slowly began to climb towards the hawk’s perch. The closer it got, the more frantic became the dancing. Reaching the enemy’s branch, the Apostle bird seemed to shrink, as a cat does when it goes into the final phase of a stalk. Creeping along till it couldn’t have been more than fifteen centimetres from the target, the Struthidean hero, shrieking like an enraged panther, leaped into the air and with wings flapping and feet forward hit the hawk fair in the back.
The result was dramatic. The hawk literally fell from the branch and for a second we thought it would hit the ground, but at the last minute it spread its wings and fled. Wings beating like the clappers and flying almost at ground level, it disappeared among the rows of sultanas.
And the Apsotle birds? When the warrior returned to the bosom of the family, they began a corroboree of celebration. They bobbed and bowed, flapped and flirted, exchange gentle pecks and, I swear, they laughed. Long and raucously, they laughed. There’s no other word for the noise they were making.