From the page, on high and at a glance
How birds are viewed by a novelist, ecologist, and birdwatcher
How birds are viewed by a novelist, ecologist, and birdwatcher
We in Australia are blessed for birdlife. In our city centres, where we are blind to trees and unnoticing of insects, the forms of nature we can’t ignore are birds. Even the steadfast urbanite can’t help but duck at the rocketing pair of rainbow lorikeets, stop to watch the acrobatic stylings of welcome swallows or hear the honk of an ibis lost in the bliss of a cylindrical food dispenser.
Whether in the city or beyond, we each see birds differently, with a different perspective. For the novelist Charlotte McConaghy, ecologist Richard Kingsford and birdwatcher Sean Dooley, birds represent very different things and it’s from these perspectives – from the page, the air, and through binoculars – combined, that we might learn to think and feel differently … for the love of birds.
The Arctic tern is a small, white-bodied bird with a distinctive black cap and precise, red beak. Looking at the Arctic tern’s form – its slender wings, deeply-forked tail – you can imagine the demands of an extreme lifestyle sculpting its body through time.
For the author Charlotte McConaghy, it was coming across the Arctic tern – learning about its life – that inspired her novel Migrations, with the Arctic tern at its centre.
“I felt something fierce and awe-struck,” Ms McConaghy says. “With the longest migration of any animal in the world, the Arctic tern flies from the Arctic to Antarctica and back again each year, which, over the span of its lifetime, means it will travel the equivalent distance of to the moon and back three times.
“The storyteller in me found this staggering and I was struck by the courage of it. Such a small bird, and such an extraordinarily long flight. So the Arctic tern became a symbol for me of the determination, the bravery and the willpower it takes to survive this world.”
The migration of the Arctic tern is described as the longest of any animal, flying from pole to pole, year on year, in pursuit of an eternal sun – but it’s not terns alone that turned Ms McConaghy’s imagination skyward but bird flight.
“Flight is such a beautiful thing,” she says. “Haven’t we all longed to lift up into the air and fly to faraway worlds? Birds symbolise that need in us for a journey, an adventure; there is something of our childhoods in this longing.
“I was travelling when Migrations first came to me, and maybe this is why the flight of birds became such a wonder to me. I consistently spotted birds that fascinated me and that made my heart swell. I wanted to know where they’d come from and where they were going; I wished I could follow them on that adventure and so the story of a woman following a bird across the world came to life. She herself was migratory like the birds and her search for belonging was inspired by the searching nature of a bird’s flight.”
It’s not all feathers and fun, though. Ms McConaghy’s introduction to birds was a little more complicated.
“The earliest feelings I can remember having about birds were discomfort, bordering on fear,” she says about crows. “They seemed so knowing.”
“That fear turned gradually to fascination and then, when I learned as an adult that they have the ability to recognise human faces and to bond with people, that fascination turned to love.”
It’s perhaps appropriate that Ms McConaghy’s bird fondness began with fear.
Dinosaurs are often said to be the gateway by which children discover science. Why dinosaurs? Perhaps for kids, the smallest and most vulnerable among us, dinosaurs are the quintessential monster, admired from the safe distance of 66 million years. It’s fitting, then, that it is birds – the modern descendants of dinosaurs – that represent yet another great gateway to science.
“I think we humans have an instinct about birds,” Ms McConaghysays. “Something that, when we see them, speaks to us of their ancient-ness. Their timelessness. New studies put modern birds at a hundred million years old: they have existed since the time of the dinosaurs, and they have survived everything and anything this planet could throw at them. Until us.”
Each year, the handprint of humanity is making it harder for terns to complete their migration.
“Human-caused climate change is having a disastrous impact on birds. After all this time of learning to adapt and survive, they are finally losing the battle. So maybe birds symbolise a more beautiful time on Earth, before humans; maybe they symbolise our steady destruction of this planet. Maybe they also symbolise our capacity for nurturing and the greatest impetus we have to change things.”
Ms McConaghy describes our innate longing to fly, of lifting off to witness the fragility of life from the air. Someone who enjoys that perspective, not by feather but through the Plexiglass windscreen of a Cessna, is Professor Richard Kingsford.
Each year, for most of the last 40 years, Prof. Kingsford has taken to the air for one of the largest (and longest-running) ecological surveys in the world: the Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey. The survey is extensive. Like the hypothetical lunar journey of the Arctic tern, the survey takes him annually around the circumference of the Earth.
“The incredible privilege of flying over a third of our continent each year for nearly four decades has given me an almost unparalleled bird’s-eye view of our environments...” says Prof. Kingsford.
As its name suggests, the Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey takes into account the waterbirds of the eastern states through the Murray-Darling basin, applying the same counting techniques, over the same areas, over the same period, year on year.
Flying low – a few dozen metres – over these wetlands, at speeds of 180km/h, Prof. Kingsford records sightings of birds that eat fish (pelicans and cormorants), plant matter (swans and coots), and invertebrates (ibises). Prof. Kingsford explains that if the food is absent, the birds will be absent, so by integrating the presence of each variety of waterbird, he can determine the health of the wetland. The health of a river and its capacity to host aquatic life, which would otherwise be inscrutable during a fly-over, can be read by Prof. Kingsford, with the presence of indicator birds being a sign of an ecosystem’s health from above.
With their former richness, as reservoirs of food and breeding grounds, these wetlands are – to countless species – our national nest, but this is changing. Professor Kingsford has witnessed firsthand what Ms McConaghy describes, the steady destruction of the environment at our own hands.
"We have fundamentally changed our rivers and wetlands by building large dams and taking too much water out of the rivers for irrigated agriculture," says Prof. Kingsford. "This has meant the floodplains, hotspots of biodiversity and critical areas of cultural diversity, are shrinking.
“Not surprisingly, waterbirds need water. They need water for their food and enough of it to ensure they can breed and recruit. Like so much of biodiversity, the waterbird story of decline is one of loss of habitat.
“It’s not just the rivers, but I have seen coal mines mushrooming along the Great Dividing Range and towns and cities expanding. Land clearing has also continued, overharvesting, invasive species and of course over the top is climate change. Like the birds, I have been able to track these changes at scale – big areas over long times.”
Outside his migratory wetland surveys, Prof. Kingsford’s own habitat is near UNSW Sydney, where he enjoys his local avian life. “I love all the native birds around here (apart from the noisy miners) and especially the grey butcher bird, which is my ring tone. Birds are often beautiful and particularly great to listen to. The dawn chorus is such a nice way to wake up.
“Urban areas are surprisingly rich in birds because they can fly in and out of the green and wet islands in our cities. They are a great way for the community to connect to the natural world, something we are increasingly learning – and here, there is real potential."
It’s this potential – a rare window into our natural world – that birds in our cities provide that launched a different type of bird survey: the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Each year, participants of the bird count have grown, but 2020 saw its single biggest jump, explained by author, birdwatcher, and count organiser Sean Dooley:
“We put this down to the impact of the pandemic; people were at home more, restricted in their movements. They began to notice the birds outside their window. An entire natural world that people had never noticed – because their lives were too busy and noisy – opened up on their doorstep and they began to notice birds almost for the first time.”
Used to admiring birds in the wild and through binocular lenses, Mr Dooley and his love of birds were also channelled by lockdown through the outlook of his window:
“This was most evident in Victoria which had the strictest lockdowns. It was here that saw the greatest rise in participation. Living in Melbourne, I can vouch that for many of us, birds were one of the few bright spots in otherwise dreary days!
“There are so many facets to birds that attract people, be it their song, the great variety, the epic migrations of some species [Arctic terns!] or just that they are the part of nature that we can see almost anywhere.”
After a life of birdwatching (also called ‘twitching’), Mr Dooley describes his post-lockdown outings to the Outback: “Getting out and seeing birds I’d seen before gave me just as much joy, perhaps more because I understood them better; it was like catching up with old friends. Birds to me are a connection to, and an expression of, the landscape and help me to connect with the country I am on.
“You don’t have to go to Kakadu or the Barrier Reef to experience that,” adds Mr Dooley. The love of birds, the beauty of them, is their entering our daily lives – even in cities. “Just taking the time to notice birds can brighten up your day, take you out of yourself and help put things in perspective. Even watching the antics of the Feral Pigeons on the railway station platform can be a fascinating and hugely uplifting experience.”
You don’t have to be an author, a wetland ecologist, or even a travelling birdwatcher to appreciate birds, or for the love of birds to return dividends.
“Various recent studies have shown that people who live near a large variety of wild birds are much happier,” Mr Dooley says. "Another study said that watching birds can make you smarter, while yet another showed that playing birdsong to hospital patients improved their outcomes including anxiety, levels of pain experienced and even shortened the length of the average stay.
“Birds provide the soundtrack to our lives and the thought of that going silent means that it tinges my experience with birds with grief, but also resolution to ensure the soundtrack never ends.”
Don’t miss the live panel, hosted by presenter and journalist Ann Jones with Charlotte McConaghy, Prof. Richard Kingsford and Sean Dooley, as they tell us more about the passion inflamed and dedication given for the love of birds.