On the 5 k walk that bookends my train commute from Berowra to Epping, I might see a tree creeper or a figbird, a scrubwren or a fairy wren, a flock of silver-eyes or gerygones or red-browed finches, a eastern rosella or a crew of glossy black-cockatoos. But the twitching doesn’t end when I arrive, because Macquarie University, where I work, is no mean place for bird watching either.
On occasion I’m asked to explain to prospective “customers” why they should study with us, rather than one of the other fine educational institutions in Sydney. This kind of sales-pitch is not really my strong point – I’m a teacher, not a real-estate agent. I find myself fatally drawn to talk, not so much about the passionate lecturers, the interdisciplinary subjects, the fancy technical facilities or even the light-drenched underground train station with tranquil majesty of a church, but mostly about the parrots. Which, unfortunately, seems to be a niche interest from a teenaged point of view.
So when I found myself surrounded by maybe a hundred birds – magpies, swamp hens and miners mixing it with the galahs and cockies – on my walk home, I wasn’t too surprised. But the long-billed corellas – their red slashed throats and preposterously dangerous looking beaks – were a new one on me. For a start they aren’t meant to be in Sydney at all.
According to my bird book and the Michael Morecombe app on my phone, corellas are birds of the inland and the south. But for all that, there are plenty of of them around the cities of the eastern seaboard these days. So very many in fact that in fact, a corella poisoner has been at work in the Central Coast, killing scores of birds from the flocks that roost in parks on the shores of Lake Macquarie.
So how did the corellas get to Sydney and Brisbane anyway? One idea, as put about by Martyn Robinson from the Australian Museum, is that corellas moved east from the plains during the drought. But even he agrees that flock numbers have swelled – along with the wild birds’ English vocabulary – thanks to escapees from cages. Long-billed corellas in particular are apparently wonderful talkers.
On the face of it, looking at the huge flocks creaking and wheeling over ovals and golfcourses, this sounds like an unlikely idea. But tracking back through Trove, the wonderful searchable archive of Australian newspapers digitised by the National Library of Australia , it seems that corellas have been going rogue for a long time.
The first reference I find about these birds as pets in New South Wales is a story in 1878 in the Australia Town and Country Journal in about Mr D.E.Dargin bringing them 500 miles overland to join “collected goods of every sort” at the Bathurst Show. And by 1879 we have the first Sydney corella reported missing:
It’s a fine thought – these long-lived, clever and social birds breaking out of their cages and joining their wild confederates. My friend Rose has a beautiful story about a tame galah passed on to her after its previous human died. She kept it in an aviary outside and most days a flock of wild galahs would land and spend some time on the grass nearby. One bird in particular would always linger by the caged bird after the rest of the flock departed.
Eventually Rose decided to open the aviary door and let the two love birds fly off together into the sunset. Galahs can live for up to eighty years, and while they form permanent pair bonds, they will find a new mate if their partner dies. I like to think of the two of them out there somewhere, enjoying a late-life romance with a side serve of onion weed.
Some people – especially farmers – see corellas as pests. Apparently the long-billed species are a particular blight on ovals and golf courses, thanks to the six inch deep holes they can dig for roots and corms with their spectacular beak. To be honest this habit endears them to me – there’s a fine radical history to the defacing of golf courses.
There was obviously good eating to be had last week on Macquarie’s sweeping lawns. I wonder, though, if the very oldest parrots that visit the campus still remember the finer pickings from the time, in the sixties, when it was all market gardens, orchards and chicken farms.