Man & Beast, page 5
I had by this stage taken a number of inglorious and rather fuzzy photographs, and when I got home I sent them to a friend who is a natural scientist and who knows most of the birds in the area personally.
‘Here are my questions,’ I said. ‘Are these swamp harriers? Is that a rabbit? And have I witnessed the hijacking of one bird’s food, by another bird?’
‘Yes,’ said my learned friend. ‘They’re both swamp harriers. And yes, quite a good rabbit. And no. What you have witnessed is the following: in the breeding system the male swamp harrier is so fierce that he’s not allowed into the nest in case he attacks his own young. So what you have witnessed is the transfer of food from the male swamp harrier to the female. They manoeuvre themselves into position in the air so that when he drops the food, she can fly onto it and grab it. She takes the food back to the nest to feed the young and he goes off on another mission, hunting for more.’
The fact that I had seen an elegant dance with strong evolutionary backing as a crude hijacking should have made me reconsider the way I looked at things. But my assumptions about the behaviour of birds continue to be almost completely wrong. I have heard birdsong coming from a tree and eliminated all the candidates one by one as they presented themselves, only to get home and find that the song came from the first bird I eliminated. The song was rich, operatic and deep and I couldn’t believe it had come from such a small bird (a white-eared honeyeater). I have reasoned that a bird that cannot see or hear me will not fly away, and have been hugely surprised when another bird of the same species (Latham’s snipe) spotted me and took off at alarming speed, beating up thirty or forty others and emitting an urgent squawking cry audible to every snipe in Victoria.
The other day I was changing a camera battery. This is the best idea I’ve had so far. I sat down near some bush and was getting myself organised when a little pink robin appeared not far from me and began feeding, darting from log to branch and tree to ground, working an area about the size of my office. Or, to put it another way, my office is about the size of a pink robin’s office. A squadron of blue wrens bounced along, nipping insects off the ground and gossiping about what to do after lunch. A golden whistler was quietly busy in the trees above, picking food from the leaves and bark. And when I rather carefully got to my feet, I noticed that sitting on a big branch not far away was a white-bellied sea eagle. I had heard magpies and paid no attention. ‘Magpies,’ I thought. What I should have thought was ‘The magpies seem greatly exercised by something. I wonder what it could be. Could it, for example, be an enormous sea eagle, which they are repeatedly bombing so it will clear off out of their territory?’
I had hoped that as I got older I’d get a bit smarter but I’m afraid there’s no sign of it yet. Birds; that’s where the brains are.
Man and Bird
Every morning when I get out of bed there’s a polite tap-tap at the kitchen window. It’s a pair of cockatoos, waiting for breakfast. They’re clever buggers—they wait until they see me, and after the first tap, I’ve got about thirty seconds to get their seed on the sill. If I’m too slow, they start banging their beaks on the window like hammers. When it’s not the cockatoos, it’s the rainbow lorikeets, screeching for seed and quite literally biting the hand that feeds them.
When I bought this flat, I had no idea it came with birds. I’d just retired from parliament after six years as a federal MP and minister. They were six of the most gruelling, exhausting years of my life. They were also the only six years that I didn’t have birds in my life. I’d agonised over my decision to leave politics and everything that came with it—starting a new career from scratch, moving back to Sydney, buying a flat in a part of the city I barely knew.
The first morning the birds started lining up on my window sill, it was like a sign that I’d done the right thing. I was home. Out of politics and back among the birds.
People find my love for birds a bit odd. Tas Bull, a battle-hardened, firebrand left-wing unionist who was my mentor in the Waterside Workers Federation, once told me not to mention my birds to the employers. He thought they might think I’m soft, a pushover in negotiations. After a visit to my place to take a look at the aviary, my birds won him over. Neither of us were pushovers at the negotiating table.
A journalist for The Bulletin magazine who interviewed me in 2007, just before I announced I was running for parliament, asked me: ‘Why do you like birds so much?’
According to the published story, I said irritably, ‘Because they don’t ask questions!’
That’s true, but it’s not the main reason. More than anything else, birds are a connection to my father—a living, breathing memory.
When I was growing up on a winery at Minchinbury, near Rooty Hill in western Sydney, birds were a big part of our life. Well before I started kindergarten, Dad enlisted me as his helper with the chickens. My chores included collecting the eggs to sell to the Chinese family who had a market garden and fruit and vegetable stall on the other side of the Great Western Highway.
After that, we bred pigeons to sell to a pet shop in Parramatta. I enjoyed the car trip to Parramatta with Dad and the pigeons. It was just the two of us, and I imagined I was contributing to the family income in a small way. I did not, however, enjoy cleaning up the astonishing amount of bird shit and feathers they used to throw around.
Dad taught me how to handle rifles and shotguns at an early age, and I revelled in it. Hundreds of starlings and Indian mynas used to roost in the palm trees that lined the entrance to the property. In the evenings they made a hell of a racket.
The task was to keep these pests off the grapes at the nearby vineyard. They could seriously damage the harvest in each February’s vintage, so I blasted them with enthusiasm. So did Dad. He nearly blasted me once, accidentally firing his shotgun in my direction, missing me narrowly. It was a shocking experience. Dad’s father had accidentally shot and killed his own brother in a similar incident when they were teenagers.
But birds were not just for commerce or treated as pests. They were a pleasure my father and I cherished. We kept canaries for their song, and pheasants and peacocks for their beauty. We had many varieties of finches too. Finches were special, attracting greater care and attention and bringing greater satisfaction when they bred.
The finches had five-star accommodation. Behind the peach trees, we built a large aviary, with its own garden and finch habitat, in which we could walk around. It was large enough to house different varieties without causing turf wars. We had zebras and star finches, javas and double bars, cubans and longtails, and the beautiful Gouldians.
In those days Minchinbury was a rural property of several hundred acres owned by Penfolds Wines. My father tended vineyards and made champagne and table wines. He was immensely proud of his méthode champenoise Minchinbury champagne and sparkling burgundy. It irked him making sugar-sweet brands like Mardi Gras, designed for ‘elderly ladies’.
Farm life forms bonds between people and animals. There was a milking cow and beef cattle on the property and, of course, my much loved dog. But it was the birds that took most of our time and attention.
Birds involved work outside, in the yards and the vineyard, and that was man’s work. In the chook run and the pigeon coop I was expected to shovel dung, refill seed containers and refresh water troughs. If it wasn’t done there’d be trouble, so I embraced the daily discipline.
My father died when I was thirteen. I was shattered. After that, bird keeping evolved into a sentimental pleasure, a pastime I still seemed to share with him, a touchstone of our relationship.
By that time I understood the breeding habits of numerous species. I was pretty good with peacocks: people would drive a long way to buy my young cocks and hens. But when we had to leave Minchinbury after Dad’s death I had to trim myself to a suburban space and decided to focus on my favourites—finches.
Gouldians are a passion. They are endangered, so breeding them could help their survival. Th
I have only one pair at the moment. Last summer, despite difficult breeding conditions, they produced two offspring that now fly hopefully to the door of the aviary each time I approach, looking for a spray of millet or some other treat. They seem to like me, don’t ask for much, and never talk back.
Most people see birds and barely notice them. They’d be surprised to know how rich and complex a bird’s life can be. In many ways, it follows the same extremes of experience as human existence: sex, death, fear, sorrow, joy, tragedy.
And sometimes it’s a brutal world, just like our own. Coaxing my most recent Gouldians into breeding, for example, was a fraught process.
The cockbird put so much effort in, week after week, dancing, warbling, cajoling and building a nest, only for his efforts to go completely unnoticed and unrewarded. I was thrilled when the hen finally retreated into the nest that the cock had painstakingly built for her. In the privacy of the nest, a relationship consummated.
And one day, weeks later, the faint cheeping of babies. Four of them. I was as proud as any new father. Sadly, only two chicks survived.
A day after the fledglings emerged from the nest, one fell off the perch for no apparent reason. I found its body on the floor of the cage. A couple of weeks later a pair of butcherbirds attacked the aviary. One fledgling was literally frightened to death. The predators dismembered and ate the young finch, through the wire with their long beaks. A brutal world, indeed.
Through all the ups and downs of youth, the travails of union work and politics, and the joys and hazards of human relationships, finches and I have stuck together. There’s been heartache at times: disease, cats, sometimes even unreliable children forgetting to top up the water when I’ve been on holidays.
Birds tend to shape the way people relate to me. Just about everyone gives me a birthday card with birds on the front. It’s a well-intentioned default setting for family or friends.
Finches also lead to meeting other people. Just about the first people to welcome me when I announced my candidature for Labor in a Hunter Valley seat were the local finch fanciers. They’d heard about my finches from the media. Strangely enough, they were a bunch of guys about my age, from rural backgrounds, with Labor sympathies, and an involvement with finches since childhood. Completely normal, like me.
It was an immense pleasure to be welcomed by like-minded people. Pretty soon I became a subscriber to Hunter Finch Fancier and was invited to take the esteemed role of Patron of the Save the Gouldian Fund. Within my electorate on the western shores of Lake Macquarie was a massive Gouldian breeding and research facility dedicated to saving them. Hundreds of aviary-bred birds are transported to the Kimberleys and released in the wild, with regular monitoring and research to assess their progress and the survival of the species.
It’s not all one-way. Finches have helped me, too. They were a calming influence during a working life punctuated by stress. During the waterfront dispute in 1998 I’d stand in the aviary muttering and swearing and none of the birds seemed to mind. I felt my birds supported me during the fight with James Hardie for asbestos compensation, and during the ‘rights at work’ campaign against John Howard’s government I was convinced that the entire population of Gouldians, star finches, longtails, zebras and double bars were solidly behind the fight for workers’ rights.
The demands of the parliamentary lifestyle interrupted my bird keeping for the only time in my life so far. I simply wasn’t at home enough to look after birds. But as soon as I left parliament and moved back to Sydney, there were those cockatoos welcoming me back to civilisation. It was a sign. I set about building a new aviary for some Gouldians that I got, appropriately, from a bird dealer at Rooty Hill, near our old place.
Spending time with birds has soothed me during some of the most difficult periods of my life. And helped me feel close to my father and to my past.
That’s what birds mean to me.
I assaulted the Cape York crocodile by the banks of the Wenlock River, remembering not to smile. I inserted the extended middle finger of my right hand deep into its cloaca, the fierce and ancient beast’s slimy posterior orifice. I knew, instinctively, this was a first for the both of us. The tip of my finger found a small, fleshy organ along the wall of the cloaca tunnel and I gasped, sucked in the clean air of Queensland’s prehistoric deep north.
‘It’s a boy!’ I barked.
And everything changed. The scientists looked upon me with a new respect, a new kind of connectedness that can only come from digitally invading the private parts of an 8-foot apex predator.
‘Well done,’ said Professor Craig Franklin, a warm and soft-voiced University of Queensland zoologist, who, along with a thirty-strong team of scientists, animal wranglers, cooks and keen-eyed bushmen with unnervingly sharp knives, was deep into a ten-year study of crocodiles in the pristine river systems of the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, a 135 000-hectare untouched Cape York sanctuary created by the Howard government in 2007 and run by the Irwin family as a living tribute to the late wildlife warrior.
I dragged my hand back out from beneath the crocodile’s underside and raised a thumbs-up, my fingers dripping in cloaca slime.
Terri Irwin was lying atop the crocodile’s closed and roped jaws, pride across her face.
‘I think we’ll name him Trent,’ she said.
Some men have streets named after them, some men have libraries. I’ve got a killer crocodile swimming through the Wenlock, an archosaurian monster built some 200 million years ago as much for survival as for sparing every other creature on earth the burden of it. Trent’s got a small satellite tracking unit fixed to his head, being one of more than 100 Wenlock crocodiles Professor Franklin and his team are tirelessly monitoring in the largest and longest croc study in the world.
It was Franklin’s team that discovered crocodiles can stay underwater for seven hours. It was Franklin who tracked a crocodile as it made a groundbreaking and miraculous 900-kilometre overland odyssey to return, using its nose and evolutionary instincts, to its place of origin. Franklin wants to know where they’ve been and where they’re going and why these great survivors have stuck around with us puny humans here on earth for so damn long.
The Wenlock River runs 322 kilometres to the Gulf of Carpentaria through an undiscovered country of savanna plains and dense wetlands and gallery rainforests filled with palm cockatoos and spotted cuscus and intrepid scientists from across the world who come to conduct studies on bird-eating tarantulas and rare ground lillies and collect samples for experiments in natural compounds to combat everything from cancer to malaria to TB. Boat upriver long enough, the Wenlock starts to resemble the river systems of Southeast Asia. Your whole outside-of-time-and-place-and-history boat journey goes all Martin Sheen voice-over, all Apocalypse Now surreal and endless odyssey.
And Ulysses was our Colonel Kurtz, our hulking 13-foot crocodilian Marlon Brando monster reptile waiting for us upriver.
‘Ulysses,’ whispered one seasoned crocodile wrangler, one of the brave souls given the ominous task of annually catching, releasing and re-catching the giant research crocodiles Professor Franklin tracks. ‘He’s pound for pound the toughest fighter I’ve ever caught.’
The smell of death drifted downriver from a bend in the Wenlock they called ‘Chicane’. Franklin eased the throttle on the outboard motor of our tin research boat. ‘That’s about as close as you’ll come to what a dead body smells like,’ he said.
The smell was coming from a crocodile bait. Half a wild pig, what local bushmen called research ‘volunteers’; a crocodile delicacy too rank and succulent for Ulysses to resist creeping unwittingly inside the weighted and roped net trap set on the muddy river bank, metres from the water.
Our team’s four boats tied off against a tree a
‘Puuuuuulllllll,’ screamed the head wrangler, as eight men hauled Ulysses out of the trap, growling; a deep, guttural, prehistoric rumble from some place less biological than geological, some place deep within the earth, some place old and volcanic. The men needed to jump the crocodile to tape his deadly jaws but the setting was not ideal. The trap area was tight: too many trees for ropes to get caught in; too many roots to trip on. A mute tension filled the scene. ‘His head’s like concrete,’ whispered Franklin. ‘Don’t go anywhere near the head. If he got a chance to swipe at you, he could snap your legs.’ Crocodiles can whiplash, leveraging from the tail. Snap. And after snap invariably comes chomp.