A picture tells

6

“nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights – or if a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel” (John Keats).

Well, here in this quarter of the turning globe it is a beautiful Autumn morning (though a little windy for my un-Lear-like tastes) with Sunday morning coming down. Outside the window of the study where I write this blog is another scene of peaceful feeding birds. A mixed flock of several species of parrots (above showing the galahs and eastern rosellas, couldn’t get grass parrots in same shot) of the kind you might expect to see in tropical climes, not a dry windswept hill in cold southern climes. Potentially at least, since they are around the farm, there could be five species of parrot (including cockatoos and crimson rosellas) on my lawn but that would be an unusual coincidence. But as well as the parrots, there are also the small birds, delighting me as a sparrow delighted Keats – blue wrens, wagtails, thornbills, pipits, white fronts, diamond finches, chats, all picking small insects and smaller seeds from grass, and house wall, and shrubs. The magpie family moves in at times, searching knowingly for larger prey like earthworms and beetle larvae, listening carefully for the tiny sounds they make underground before pouncing triumphantly. While swooping constantly overhead are the swallows. Occasionally a rare species will appear – wood swallow, hooded robin, scarlet robin, pardalote – and tentatively check out the menu from the fence before deciding that this isn’t their scene and they should move on to places down in the valley less transformed by humans. Occasionally too a flock of stranded starlings from the northern hemisphere will appear like party gate-crashers, eat everything in sight, and then go on uninvited to the next party.

It is a busy mixed scene at times in the early morning. They all work hard putting together a smorgasboard breakfast, eating as much as they like for a fixed price. But occasionally a wedgetail or little eagle will appear overhead and suddenly the breakfast table is deserted, the birds dispersed in an instant. Or a storm may blow in and then, pausing to take one last mouthful, the birds will find shelter where they can.

Sometimes the room feels like one of those glass-bottomed boats on the Barrier Reef. But beached, so that instead of seeing fish I am seeing birds, and just as the fish are oblivious to the humans peering through the glass, and go about their daily business, so the birds are mostly oblivious of me. They have their own priorities, these little birds. It’s only April, but there is mist in the air, cold winds blowing, and we are getting close to frost on the ground. So gotta get a move on and build up fat reserves for the harsh Winter, and then yet another breeding season if you survive to Spring. It is a scene that was being played out long before I arrived on this hilltop 14 years ago – even when the British were landing on the continent in 1788 these same species, the distant ancestors of these same individuals, would have been picking away on this same patch of ground. Indeed they were probably breakfasting here long before the first Aborigines arrived some 40,000 years ago, as they expanded through the continent after the initial landings in northern Australia.

There is rhythm of life that has nothing to do with us, however anthropocentric we are, the world goes on turning, birds go on feeding, with us or without us, makes no odds to them. Except when we stuff them up in our anthropocentric way. The other day a scratching sound in the fireplace told me that a bird had fallen down the chimney and couldn’t get out. Managed to carefully catch it in a basket, and then release it, a marvellous moment as a somewhat ashen, cold and hungry and lonely swallow left the basket and soared up towards the Sun, circling and calling to let the rest of the flock know it was back, safe and sound, if a little dusty and in need of breakfast.

But mostly I just try to leave them all alone to get on with their lives, while I take part in their existence from a safe distance.

Perhaps it is a metaphor. But mostly a bird is just a bird. Birds are truth, and beauty, and that’s all you need to know.