Flying lawnmowers

There’s aren’t too many workplaces that have their own bird list.  Or offices that you can use as a hide for stalking coy marshbirds.

Buff banded rail with raised leg long and skinny

The elusive Buff Banded Rail of Mars Creek

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.

Upside down coot horizontal small lighter

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.

Mob of corellas crop smaller

A flock of little corellas at Speers Point on the Central Coast

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:

Lost corella jpeg

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.

Galahs two heads together corellas background crop

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.

Dandelion at MQ extreme closeup

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.

Long beaked corella with grass in front of sign long and skinny amend

R2D2 in black and white

I’ve been spending a lot of time with magpies lately.  “Model magpies” as my nine year old aptly described these two who spent the day  posing in the Japanese maple and prancing around the back deck.  Oddly enough, the companionship steps up in intensity whenever I stop typing for a snack.

This gang of youngbloods don’t spend all their time begging for food and doing catalogue shoots, though.  There’s also the occasional training session for the Olympic synchronised vogueing competition.

And, of course, plenty of carolling.  The juveniles spent a lot of time last week singing for their supper, until one of the grown-ups got jack of the whole thing and flew down to show them how it was done.

But not before the youngsters did their party trick.  In amongst all the mellifluous warbling, my ear caught some distinct moments of robotic squeaking and clacking. The magpies were doing a bowerbird impression.

Apparently Australian birds are uncommonly good at mimicry.  Lyrebirds are famous for it, but all sorts of implausible suspects have a line in impressions as well: magpies, mistletoe birds, silver eyes. Apparently the minute brown thornbill has been recorded mimicking a pied currawong – a bird forty times its size.

Why do birds mimics the songs of others?  Pretending to be something bigger and tougher for self defense purposes seems to be one motive.  Bowerbirds have been observed doing raven impressions while being mobbed by a colony of those rather nasty bell-miners, for instance.

Another seems to be showing off to make yourself look good to potential mates.  Researchers have found that male bowerbirds that can only manage a one or two rubbish impressions (singing “like a kookaburra with bronchitis”, as the researcher cruelly remarked) have less mating success than those who can effortlessly produce a good five.

The most hilarious explanation I’ve read for bird mimicry is to chill out sexual partners.  Researchers reckon that R2D2 style squeaks and clicks that satin bowerbirds make while courting can freak out their mates:

“by interspersing melodic mimetic laughing kookaburra and Lewin’s honeyeater calls between episodes of harsh mechanical calls, males may calm females and improve the likelihood of that females will stay for additional courtship and copulation” (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015)

The idea that a sudden explosion of kookaburra calls would mellow you out and get you in the mood gives me a good picture of why certain male bowerbirds (and possibly particular male ornithologists) might be unlucky in love.

While not as famous as lyrebirds, bowerbirds do some pretty amazing impressions, not just of individual sounds but of whole acoustic scenes.  How’s this, observed from a toothed bowerbird?

A male started with the sounds of a group of people talking as they moved through the forest with their machetes cutting bushes and dogs barking, and continued with the sounds of machetes being used to fell a tree, complete with the rattle of shaking leaves after each blow and eventually the sound of the tree falling and hitting the ground with a crash (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015, 97)

The humble magpie doesn’t do badly either.  They’ve been recorded copying 21 different species of bird, as well as the sound of horses, dogs, cats and humans.  Magpies, it appears, only imitate critters that share their territory, not just the blow-ins and passers by, so it makes sense that our youngsters copy the satin bowerbirds that seem so spend much of the year in the garden, eviscerating my beans and kiwifruit vines and making free with my broken pegs.

I’ve got a whole new agenda in the backyard now.  There’s those in-flagrante males doing kookaburra impressions to listen out for.  As yet, I haven’t found any references to magpie calls appearing in the satin bowerbird repertoire.  Maybe this will be my contribution to science.  Better still, maybe I’ll catch a bowerbird in the act of ripping off a magpie doing a remix of another bowerbird.  Or the other way round.

Additional references

Borgia, G. and Keaghy, J. (2015) “Cognitively driven cooption and the evolution of sexual displays in bowerbirds”in Irschick, D., Briffa, M and Podos, J. (eds) Animal Signalling and Function: an integrative approach, Wiley Blackwell

Kaplan, Gisela (2015) Bird Minds, CSIRO Publishing

 

Alhambra on the Hawkesbury

The last few times I passed by Bujwa Bay, on my way downriver from Berowra Waters, it was shrouded in mist.

But last Sunday, in the golden light of late afternoon, there was a revelation.

I’m familiar with the Hawkesbury’s sculpture parks and sandstone art galleries.  But the fact that Berowra Creek had well preserved fragments of an ancient Moorish fortress – well, that was news to me.

When I went home and told RB I’d seen something very like the famous stucco inscriptions of the Alhambra on a estuarine cliffside at the end of Berowra Waters Road, his comment was “You’re barking!”.  And he’s probably right.

After all, the Alhambra is an artistic jewel, a masterwork of European Islam, preserved over the centuries after the Moors themselves were driven first into the mountains and then out of Spain altogether.  Its delicate carved plasterwork miraculously survived Christian conquerors, dodgy architectural restorers, squatters and tourists.  And the sandstone of Bujwa Bay is just, you know, rock.

But I’ve been reading about “thing power” and it’s given me a whole new angle on inanimate objects.  “Thing Power!” – sounds like a killer bathroom cleaner that will sort out all the disturbing life-forms, named and unnameable, in your shower cubicle.

But according to Jane Bennett, its “a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new [that] buzzes within the history of the term ‘nature’ ” (2010, 118).  Electrons, microbes, minerals, waste, all busily making and shaping things, inside, around, through, against and despite humans and their fancy-pants plans.  She reckons things and people rub along or against each other in a pattern that’s “not random or unstructured, but conforms to the strange logic of vortices, spirals and eddies” (2010, 118).

Kooky as it sounds, this is not a bad description of how the Bujwa Bay Alhambra came into the world, according to a paper coauthored, in a way that pleases my penchant for magical thinking, by a geologist from Granada, home of the famous palace.

Honeycomb weathering like this happens in all sorts of porous rocks, around the world – from Antarctica to Jordan – and maybe even on the surface of Mars. It might seem like  hollows would form in weaknesses in the rock, but it’s not necessarily so. Blistering heat, frost, chemical weathering and rain are all in the frame – with maybe a little help from the odd patch of algae or lichen. But mostly it’s about salt and wind.

Salty water – in this case from seaspray – seeps into the rock and crystallises, making tiny fractures. If there’s plenty of water, salt crystals forms on the outside surface to form efflorescence, a mineral flowers blooming on a cliffside or a cellar wall or a garden fence.  But the real damage is done deep in the rock.

According to Rodriguez and friends, once a depression is formed in the rockface, wind eddies and swirls inside the concave parts of the stone.  Faster breezes mean more evaporation and a super-saturated salt solution, meaning more salt crystals and more fretted stone. Eventually the rockface becomes lacework, without any intervention by a rock lacemaker.

Alhambra rocks 1 crop long

The other name for honeycombed rock is alveoli.  It’s stone with lungs.  Made of mineral flowers.  Not alive (or mostly not alive – sorry algae) but doing complicated and beautiful things.

Not immortal, invisible, unfathomable.  In fact, as fathomable as the waters of Bujwa Bay at low tide, that is, knee deep to a heron.  Just exceedingly hard to grasp.

And that’s not just me banging my head against a corroding brick wall of “Salt weathering: a selective review” – the geologists are still bickering over exactly how it works. In Bennett’s (possibly slightly loopy) words, it’s vital matter, “hard to discern… and, once discerned, hard to keep focused on.  It is too close and too fugitive, as much wind as thing” (119).  Or perhaps, in this instance, both wind and thing.

tiny crab and shadow.jpg

A crab wondering what I’m on about, on a beach near Bujwa Bay

References

Jane Bennett 2010 Vibrant Matter, Duke University Press

Eric Doehne (2002) “Salt Weathering: a selective review” from Natural Stone, Weathering Phenomena, Conservation Strategies and Case Studies. Vol 205, 51-64, Geological Society Special Publication

Carlos Rodriguez-Navarro, Eric Doehne,Eduardo Sebastian (1999) Origins of honeycomb weathering: The role of salts and wind, GSA Bulletin; August 1999; v. 111, no. 8; p. 1250–1255

Huinink, H. Pel, L, Kopinga, K. 2004 “Simulating the growth of tafoni” Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 29 1225-33

Gymnastic bees, virgin fruit and the birds that ate spring

It’s the vernal equinox and out in the garden, the spring flowers are blooming.

It pleases me no end me to think that these little figlets are made up of hundreds of the most secretive of flowers, snuggled inside a hollow-ended stem.

As you can imagine, pollinating figs is an extreme sport.  It’s undertaken by the fig-wasp, which spends much of its 48 hours of life on a suicide mission for fig fertility.  The male wasps hatch, blind and wingless, gnaw their way to one of the as-yet-unborn females, mate with them (eww), chew them an escape tunnel (still not redeeming yourselves, guys) and then die without ever having experienced life outside their flowery prison.  The females emerge and flee, spreading pollen as they go, only to find and squeeze into a second syncope (the fig “fruit” to you and me) through a hole so tiny she rips her wings off in the process.  If she’s lucky she gets to lay her fertilised eggs amongst the miniscule flowers inside and promptly, you guessed it, dies.

It’s really quite a disturbing life-cycle.  It’s with some relief that I can say that my three fig trees – a White Adriatic, a White Genoa and a Brown Turkey – are, like most cultivated figs, sterile mutants.  That sounds bad, but it’s a walk in the park compared to the Gothic splatterfest of the caprifig’s lifecycle.

Figs are one of the very first plants to be cultivated by humans: they have been propagated by us since the Neolithic era, over eleven thousand years ago.  And the outcome of our long association with ficus carica is virgin birth.  Yep, that’s the meaning of parthenocarpy – the way that common cultivated figs produce fruit from female flowers unsullied by any male influence. Since their fruits are sterile, they rely on us to do the hard work of allowing them to reproduce. Bloody skivers.

Actually, humans are quite fond of producing such feckless fruits.  Bananas are a good example.  They’re sterile, thanks to their three sets of chromosones – just like those fast growing “triploid” Pacific Oysters I wrote about in my last post, reproducing thanks to genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters” that spring from the plant’s base.  Fig wasps and caprifigs have co-evolved – maybe in some weird cultural way, modern humans with their taste for large, fast growing and seedless fruit and our virgin orchards have done the same.

One way or another, people, myself included, seem to get a perverse kind of pleasure in frustrating plants’ attempts to have babies.

My broccoli, encircled by landcress that deals death to invading insects and safe inside the kids’ superannuated, net-enshrouded trampoline frame – has done really well this year.  Now the weather is warming up, however, it’s taking a real effort to thwart the reproductive desires of my brassicas.  Those tasty flower buds really really want to go the full distance and burst into bloom and it’s taking a serious commitment to broccoli-eating to cut them off at the pass.

I tried, but it’s too late for that for the rocket, the mizuna and the tatsoi – these spring flowers are in bloom, like it or not.

I’m happier about these vernal blooms: magnificently monochrome broad beans in all their line-print glory.

I was a bit worried about my broadies this year, incarcerated as they are beneath the chook dome, my first line of defence against the brush turkeys.  Would the pollinators be able to make it through the 1 cm square lattice of the dome’s aviary wire?  As I noodled around in the garden the other day I had my answer. A European bee hovered indecisively, making careful mental calculations or perhaps looking for a door handle.  Eventually, it seem to sigh and alighted briefly on a wire, adopting what can only be described as a pike position and plunging through for a perfect 10 entry.

It’s a bit early to say, but I think I can see a few tiny bean pods forming so I’m hoping that while I’ve been otherwise occupied we’ve been visited by other elite insect athletes up for the gymnastic challenge.

The local birds seem to be almost as ambivalent about the signs of spring as I am about my brassicas going to seed. The bowerbirds are doing their valiant best to rip all the buds off the liquidambar and the little wattlebirds have been paying excessive attention to the flowers on the chinese lantern.  They’re either defending them from insect attack or eating them – I’m not quite sure which.

I don’t think these red wattlebirds would be capable of doing any damage to the heavy duty flower of a gymea lily, even mob handed.  These monster blossoms are bird pollinated – the red colour scheme is a dead giveaway apparently.  I guess this is the honey eater equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Since you can roast and eat the roots and the young flower spikes it could even be supersized bush tucker for us humans too.

Enjoy the equinox: may all your spring flowers be excellent eating!

Ghost chickens

We have poultry visitors from beyond the grave.

RB had a wild look in his eye after a visit to the henhouse last week.  “I just saw Luna!!”  That’s Luna the barred Plymouth Rock, who sadly, quietly, died about three weeks ago.  And then, the next day, I saw her too, or at least her fluffy wraith-like behind, evanescent in the half-light by the woodshed.

You may doubt the evidence of our eyes*.  I invite you to compare this spectral butt with the large as life hindquarters of Luna the barred rock in better days.  The resemblance is uncanny.

And now Shyla the Australorp, thankfully still hale and hearty, has been possessed by the feisty spirit of the late, great Andy Ninja.

Never having shown any signs of Houdini-like qualities while Andy was in this world, she now greets us every morning from the back step.  The garden gate, sturdy as an upcycled Ikea bedhead could ever be, and previously an impenetrable barrier, now presents no obstacle to her fulfilling her urge to join us in the dining room for breakfast.

Clearly Shyla has been inhabited over by a chicken possessed of both wisdom and wanderlust.  Andy Ninja walks amongst us again.

* or indeed you may suspect that this fluffy behind belongs to the authors of our adventures in passive scrumping, the Barnevelder-cum-Australorp-cum-(possibly)-barred-Rocks from next door.  You may be right.

Andy Ninja’s great escape

Andy Ninja was always a chicken with a mission.  She arrived at our place, in the company of her rather macho sister Harley, already in possession of a name that perfectly captured her special qualities, thanks to the penetrating insights of my chicken-wrangling nieces.

Within a year she’d made her first break for freedom.  A quarter acre block just couldn’t contain her ambitions.

Most mornings we’d wake up to find her scratching up the trad in the front garden, her daily constitutional in no way hindered by clipped flight feathers or the locked garden gate.  Then one morning she toodled up the drive and didn’t come back.

There was no tell tale trail of torn feathers, but after a couple of days I tried to gently break it to the kids that Andy probably wasn’t coming back.  All the fox-baiting national park rangers in the world weren’t going to save a chook on the loose overnight on the mean streets of Berowra.

My eldest was in denial.  She hand-crafted a “missing” poster, complete with full-colour portrait and I nailed it over our mailbox.  Some kind of closure at least, I figured.

A week later, I get a phone call from some folks down the street.  Andy Ninja, it seems, was that proverbial chicken who crossed the road.  She had introduced herself to a new family, laid them some eggs and made herself at home in their kitchen.  They were in love with her.  There were childrens’ tears as the unrepentant adventurer was returned.

Don’t get me wrong.  Andy liked to roam, but she knew her own stomping ground. A couple of years back we spent a few months overseas.  While we were gone, some young Swedes rented our place.  They weren’t keen to be small-holders, so our generous and well organised neighbours, chicken aficionados from way back, offered to take in our birds for the duration.

We gave the chooks a week or so to settle into their new high security quarters – a proper coop, enclosed on all sides with wire, with a sturdy dog-proof outdoor run.  After our haphazard fencing and half-baked sleeping arrangements, surely the chooks would be safe and sound in the custody of some proper chicken keepers.

By Day Two, Andy Ninja had made her way home.  I returned from work to find her mooching around in our yard.  We had stern words and passed her over the fence.

On Day Three, she was back again.  Our chicken-wise neighbour assured us confidently that with close wing clipping, there would be no repeat offenses.

We woke up on the morning of our flight out to see this view from the window.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when we arrived in London, to receive a slightly aggravated email from our Swedish tenants asking what to do about the chicken that, despite previous arrangements, had turned up on the premises.

Or to receive another one, a week later, saying that actually, it turns out that they quite liked having the chicken around and what should they buy it for treats.

While we were gone, Andy Ninja was quite the chicken around town, it seems.  Our poultry-hosting neighbours would get phone calls at all hours reporting sightings of a neat brown chicken strolling down the main street.  Was it one of theirs?  Our friends up the drive also got regular visits.  Andy would pop into their shed to learn a bit more about welding, or perambulate through their herb garden to monitor the watering.

She survived abandonment by jetsetters.  She survived a week on her own on the street.  She survived, we suspect, a midnight attack by an ambitious tawny frogmouth, perched, as she was, all alone on the top of the chook dome.  At one point, Andy transitioned to become a she-rooster who crowed in the morning and made eyes at her flock mates.  And then started laying eggs again.  After months under surveillance as a suspect in The Case of the Cannibal Chicken, she emerged, eventually, entirely vindicated.

I have to admit, Andy wasn’t wildly keen when the hefty newcomers arrived and stole her place at the top of the pecking order, but she rolled with the punches.  She was bit miffed when her perch, the chook tractor, was repurposed into a brush-turkey-proof brassica zone, but she sighed and settled down next to the pushy new girls on the edge of the potted figs. She outlived her bikie sister and a large percentage of the world’s twenty billion chickens, with their abbreviated and unfree lives.

But she didn’t survive this week.

Something – maybe Marek’s disease, maybe “wet” fowl pox, maybe both – has rolled through our little flock, despite our middle class pretention of expensive, vaccinated hens.  Luna quietly expired a week or so ago, and despite an attempt to segregate the sick bird, Andy went a few days after.  On her last day, looking horribly under the weather, she simply disappeared, her mysterious ninja powers undiminished by age and illness.

She’s made her final break for it and it looks like she’s got away for good this time.  We will surely miss her.

The Problem That Has No Name

Betty Friedan’s analysis of the psychological consequences of compulsory happy housewifery for  1950s middle-class American women may not cut much ice in the twenty-first century, when two incomes drum up barely enough cash to rent a cardboard box under a Sydney bridge.  But in recent weeks I’ve started to wonder if Her Indoors in the Henhouse may still, even in this day and age, struggle with The Problem That Has No Name.

Treasure has just spent several weeks in the nest box, trying to hatch baby Light Sussex chicks from golfballs.  At about 11 am every day the frustration seemed to overwhelm her and she would leap from the coop, galloping madly around the yard, finally throwing herself into the nearest patch of scarified earth for a frenzied roll about.  And then, after an orgiastic dirt bath, back to the nest for another thankless 23 hours of golfball-warming. After a month or so of this, she seems to have given it all up as a bad joke: she’s spending her nights with the other girls now, out on the edge of the fig tree barrel, in the rain.  But she’s emerged from her confinement looking disturbingly downtrodden and scabrous.

Just to ramp up the poultry-keeping anxiety, we’ve also had an egg strike.  Snowball occasionally pops out a pocket-sized effort which we have a slim chance of collecting, if we leap up the minute it’s been laid and leg it down the yard, hurling any object at hand at the awaiting brush turkeys.  But otherwise, nada.

We have had these health concerns before.  In the past our concerns about the wasting disease fatally undermining the chooks’ productivity has usually ended with a discovery like this:

After extensive searching of the spider-rich environs around the yard, a mother-lode of eggs has yet to be found, though  I have come to the conclusion that “exclusion netting” may be something of a misnomer.

Could an infestation of red mites explain Treasure’s sorry state and the recent lack of omelettes?  Oddly, Friedan’s account of housewives’ distress in The Feminine Mystique never references insects.

The henhouse has been duly scrubbed and even sprinkled with wormwood, allegedly a natural insecticide.  If it doesn’t kill off the annoying bugs, perhaps we can set up a still in the woodshed, chuck in the left-over wormwood and help the chooks drown their sorrows with absinthe.  What with the late Victorian bohemian vibe, I think chickens wasted on absinthe would have higher self-esteem than your hen zoned out on “mother’s little helpers“.

Not entirely persuaded that the beverage of choice of the nineteenth century Parisian art world would also do a good job with the modern mite, I also cracked out some evil commercial pesticide and gave the very indignant Treasure a good dusting.

In the spirit of equal opportunity ignorance, I’d been doing my best to avoid reading the manual or asking for direction.  Eventually I cracked and consulted other, wiser chicken enthusiasts.  Almost immediately I found out from Tim-the-Chicken that your broody light Sussex often sashays straight into the egg-free zone of the annual moult.

It’s The Problem That Has No Name no more. It has a name, and its name is moulting.

I’m not sure what insights I’ve offered into twentieth century women’s history here.   Can we read the rising popularity of the bikini in the the 60s and 70s as some kind of symbolic human female “moulting”? Will we see birth rates and valium consumption rise again with the increasing popularity of the retro one piece swim suit and the burquini?  Who can say.  I’m simply hoping, like a scary social conservative, that Treasure will come to her senses, cover up those naked bits, stop running around the town and get back into the henhouse.