A birds’ war corroboree

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).

A male Apostle bird —Wikipedia Commons/Benjamin Wild 444

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.

Youngsters in a Bourke backyard

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.

The old hut, scene of the Apostle birds’ victory dance

Dried fruit, Seventh Day Adventists, smallpox, AIDS and crackpot theories

The last row of the season. Uncle Tom is the man in the straw hat, Hadyn Judd is handing me the cuppa, and my picking partner and mother of our son is seated on my left.
The last row of the season. Uncle Tom is the man in the straw hat, Hadyn Judd is handing me the cuppa, and my picking partner and mother of our son is seated on my left. The temperature would have been in the high 30s–40s that day. Victims of new conditions on the blocks, the couple at left were only with us a couple of days.

Back in late ’79 I’d just returned to the Old Brown Land from an extended stay in the Long Cloud, also known as the Shaky Isles and New Zealand, and after a brief sojourn in Sydney – where I worked as a reader of Acts and Bills for the State Government Printer – I decided it was time I rediscovered the Australia I had most missed during my time in voluntary exile. My new girlfriend suggested we go down to work in the fruit out on the irrigation country in the arid south-west corner of New South Wales, close to the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers, rivers now in the desperate stages of what will be a terminal  illness unless government listens to the scientists fighting for its life. This is a tragedy made even more poignant by the rivers’ iconic status, for the Murray–Darling system holds the same place in Australian hearts as the Mississippi does in Americans’ and the Thames in the hearts of the English.

We decided to head for the Coomealla district of NSW, just over the river from Mildura on the Victoria side, so with a few clothes, provisions and some camp-cooking gear in a couple of small backpacks and my guitar case in my hand, we got out on the highway to thumb the 1,000-odd road kilometres to Dareton. It ended up taking about three days – school holiday times were never the best for hitching – but there were still enough farmhands and ordinary bush people on the road to get us there in relative comfort and summer temperatures made for easy sleeping under the sky.

The old pickers' hut
The old pickers’ hut

We were lucky. We got there about three weeks before the grape harvest began – it was a late season – but a few enquiries over beers at the Coomealla pub directed us to the extended Judd family who hired us in advance of the harvest, telling us we could have the use of their old pickers’ hut, one of the last in the district. We were doubly lucky; most of the old-style huts had been swept aside in a wave of local governments’ passion for “progress” with its counterpart in State government rationalisations that had resulted in the doing away of the “Fruit-Fly Special” – a carriage attached to the regular passenger train service to Mildura that offered cheap transport to the fruit districts for itinerant workers.

We spent  a bit over two years in that hut. Shaded by huge old Atholl pines – tamarisks – that gave relief from the worst of the 120-in-the-shade summer days, it was basic but cosy. A small bedroom and larger kitchen with room for a table and chairs were in the hut proper, while outside were a shower – hot water courtesy of a little wood-fired donkey-boiler attached to a tank made from a 44-gallon fuel drum – and a traditional style outside dunny. The hut was ventilated by big corrugated iron-clad shutters that were propped open on hot days to allow for free passage of air.

The Judds were a close-knit family of Seventh Day Adventists whose dinky-di Australian-ness somehow blended with their religious beliefs, seemingly with no effort. They may have inwardly shuddered at the lifestyles of neighbors and employees, but without exception were neighbourly and polite to all they encountered and always willing to help someone in need. More than once we were “loaned out” to help one of their fellow growers who’d had difficulty getting enough labor to do essential work. For two full seasons and a bit more we picked sultanas, currants and raisins, pruned and “pulled out” – removed the spent sultana canes from the trellis wires – and sweated on the drying racks. When not working for the Judds we picked oranges for Col, a very irreligious neighbour who was also a good drinking partner with a fine singing voice. With me on guitar we worked out a great arrangement of “Lucky Old Sun” that brought the house down at a hooley one night.

Being Seventh Day Adventists, the older generation of male Judds would not take up arms during World War Two, serving instead in the Medical Corps. At war’s end, not a few went back to the South Pacific to serve as what they called “medical missionaries” in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia; one such was a Judd family member known to all as Uncle Tom.

I liked Tom. He had a wicked sense of humour and loved a yarn; he also had one of those minds that ceaselessy wander through the pastures of the imagination, picking a bit from here, a bit from there and chewing them  over and over till he’d extracted every bit of mental sustenance that he possibly could. I also admired his religious conviction. Like the rest of the Judd clan I never once heard him curse anyone. He might admit that he couldn’t understand this or that, but he would never condemn. A town desperate, known for his violence when the booze was on him, was known to have badly beaten his wife and Tom was so moved as to criticise: “He could be a better man were it not for the drink.” The elder of the clan, Charlie Judd was the same. Some local brats had opened the water channel near his house, flooding the front yard and a workshop. “I wish you had been there, Frank,” Charlie said. “You could have told them off much better than I was able.” Hadyn, the youngest Judd, was not without a sense of humour. Within a few days of the water incident, a neighbour was spraying orange trees at what seemed a strange time and I was moved to wonder aloud what he might be spraying for. “Kids, probably,” was Hadyn’s immediate and laconic rejoinder.

Back to the yarn. Uncle Tom had been a medical missionary for 10 years and smokos and the meal break were enlivened by stories of his time in the islands. Having a mind similar to Tom’s, I soaked up his anecdotes like a sponge. Being a staunch SDA, Tom was also a firm believer in natural foods and was full of criticisms of the modern diet. Homogenised milk was, according to Uncle Tom, very dangerous, because the process rendered the fat molecules small enough to pass through the stomach wall and directly into the bloodstream. Recent findings have borne Tom’s theories out, though the mechanics are a bit more complicated. I once put to Tom my  belief that we were doing ourselves harm by eating foods out of their season. I argued that humans have evolved to eat feast-or-famine fashion, gorging on what was abundant in its season and going without when it was scarce. How is it, I asked Tom, that south-eastern Aboriginal peoples, who during the season gorged on bogong moths until “every pore oozed with the oil they had consumed” and the Top End clans who during the nesting season eat goose eggs by the canoe load, how is it that they didn’t drop like flies from the cholesterol and fat overload? Tom sort of agreed with me, reckoning that it was probably better to scoff homegrown tomatoes by the bucket for their limited season and then go without for the remaining nine months.

Then there was his yaws story. Yaws is an ugly, tropical disease of the skin and bones caused by a spirochaete bacterium. The disease, Uncle Tom told us, was rife among the islanders he worked with and its control became a major concern. However, as yaws was brought under control, the incidence of syphillis began to rise. It was believed, Tom said, that the yaws spirochaete supressed that which caused syphillis.

And so we come to the point of this discourse – and if you think I’m a long-winded writer then be warned, never engage me in actual conversation. It must have been a year after I left the grape blocks that I was listening to a radio documentary on the rise and spread of AIDS. One of the scientists involved in the hunt for the culprit described how it had for so long eluded them because, and this is how I recall it, the virus “hid behind” the smallpox virus, to which it was very similar. Uncle Tom’s yaws story sprang  to mind. Didn’t AIDS proliferate at about the same time that smallpox was eliminated?

I remember another radio documentary about the rise in heart disease and the link to changes in the diet. The increase in consumption of fatty foods was seen as a major culprit and much discussion ensued about fats from seafood and fats from land animals – Omega-3 and cholesterol were soon to become enormously profitable buzz words. Yet another radio program, this one on the decline of traditional farming, contained a comment by an English farmer bemoaning the loss of diversity in livestock breeds, particularly pigs – there are now, generally speaking, only two or three breeds of pig raised commercially. This and the rise of factory farming, he said, has led to animals putting on what he called “soft fat”. Prior to WWII, he went on, animals were hardened by roaming pastures for feed and their fat had a different composition, “hard fat” as the old-timer put it.

Another documentary, another bit of trivia. The traditional meats consumed by Australia’s indigenous peoples contain higher levels of Omega-3s than does meat in the modern diet. Wild sheep, the ancestors of today’s breeds, also contain significant levels of this fatty acid. Has intensive farming and the livestock feeds associated with it changed the chemical composition of the meat we eat? I know that grain-fed beef smells and tastes faintly of the pellets you feed domestic chooks if you’ve run out of grains, so why wouldn’t this be so?

Okay, so you reckon it’s all far-fetched and fanciful, but spare me days, I have to do something with my mind.