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Climate science for the birds



The branch — perhaps three metres directly above where my wife and I were unloading wood — was one of the lowest extending from the trunk of a massive, 200 year old eucalypt. And the nest, in a leafy fork of this branch, was scarcely visible.

Scott Morrison stands shoulder deep in water while magpies look down on him from a tree. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonIt was only when my too enthusiastic heave from where I was standing in the tray of the ute sent one of the newly sawn logs thundering on to the corrugated iron roof of our woodshed instead of through its wide open doors that I heard flutters of fright and more mature notes of alarm from somewhere above. I looked up and glimpsed the small fledgling heads and begging suppliant beaks stretching above the nest's twiggy, leaf-layered sides and the female magpie presiding with worms and other delicacies.

Once you knew where to look, you could watch the comings and goings, the dawn-lit bustlings and flights, the restless crepuscular settlings, the routines that ensured that there was always one of the parents at the nest or nearby. You could trace the elders' stylish, skimming glide paths, effortlessly navigating, ascending, plummeting, threading networks of growth and whiplash of leaves, their occupation of this or that branch signalled by warning calls or by that trilling, liquid and inimitable paean of salute and lyricism.

Magpies belong to clans and guard their territory. The jovial kookaburras are likewise territorial. Their throaty chuckles or outright gusts of sound which we humans in our anthropomorphic way decide is 'laughter' accompany the first light as surely as the calls, trills, whistling and cawing of the rest of the avian population: it's just that the kookaburras, while still visible if you look carefully, prefer to be less seen.

As time passed, our two scrawny fledglings became more active, though still nest-bound, as they flapped, tumbled and above all complained until fed; but soon they were part of a daily tableau in which parental magpies foraged, fed, chastised their whining young or demonstrated vertical leaps to claim an overhanging branch or made sudden darting runs across the grass disrupting peaceable rosellas.

Meanwhile, wattle birds and honey eaters nuzzled the spring flowering bottle brush. Bees busily invaded the nasturtiums twining along the sagging wire fence beyond which the local farmer's newly shorn sheep formed orderly queues as they grazed their way out of the bottom paddock. As P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster often self-consciously conceded when indulging in uncharacteristically purple prose about the natural world: 'Peaceful, that's what I'm getting at. It was peaceful.'

Well, the scene I have described and enjoyed was more than purely peaceful of course. In these iron days, to write about or seriously discuss the world of nature and its phases and complexions can be a political act, 74 years after Orwell wondered about that very same point in 'Some Thoughts on the Common Toad': 'Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird's song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon ...'


"There are many of the commentariat who consider climate change science is 'for the birds'. But as far as I can see, the birds are much better organised. And more knowledgeable."


At present, in the Australian polity, it is indeed 'politically reprehensible' in some people's view to take pleasure in, say, the somewhat inscrutable routines and calls of magpie families if you do so as a prelude to worrying about or canvassing potential climate change which, as recent research shows, will engender species extinctions that could conceivably include among many others the indomitable maggie and the amiable kookaburra.

The dread and distress among peoples of many nations as they contemplate this prospect is the stuff of increasingly urgent and insistent reporting. In Australia, however, more stridently than in many other countries apart from the USA, and with powerful local media support, the voices of derision and denial are as numerous as they are ludicrous.

There is the Deputy Prime Minister, for example, assuring members of Pacific Island nations that they can avoid climate change-induced inundation of their islands by coming to Australia to 'pick our fruit'. Or there is the Prime Minister's celebrated claim that Australia will meet its Paris Agreement target 'in a canter' in stark contradiction of the federal government's own statistics.

Further down the list is 'Tuvalu is floating not sinking' — a contribution from Craig Kelly MP. Then there is the ubiquitous Tony Abbott who, warning voters against climate science, argued that higher temperatures 'might even be beneficial' because 'far more people die in cold snaps'. Last and no doubt least — infamous for his amateurish climate change debate with Professor Brian Cox — comes Malcolm Roberts, an Australian Senator, insisting, erroneously to put it mildly, that 'There's not one piece of empirical evidence anywhere, anywhere, showing that humans cause, through CO [sic] production, climate change.' And so on and on.

Obviously there are many of the commentariat who consider climate change science is 'for the birds'. But as far as I can see, the birds are much better organised. And more knowledgeable.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, climate change, Malcolm Roberts, George Orwell, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Superlative writing, Brian. Certain Senators, and others of the political ilk, may do well to read Simpson & Day's "Field Guide to the Birds of Australia". Even though the voices of the Black Falcon and Peregrine Falcon (deep harsh chattering and slow, whining calls) may resemble the political class, in flight these birds are swift and powerful. Vote 1 Black Falcon or Peregrine Falcon.

Pam | 01 November 2019  

What a wonderful outcome of a pretty ordinary aim when stacking wood! This prose, which is meant to be prose, is beautiful and melodious poetry - unlike so much ordinary prose these days which claims to be poetry.

john frawley | 01 November 2019  

“The 2018 State of the World’s Birds, released in April, finds that nearly 40 percent of bird species throughout the world are in decline. The comprehensive report, produced every five years by BirdLife International, documents worldwide trends in bird populations. “Each time we undertake this assessment we see slightly more species at risk of extinction. The situation is deteriorating,” Tris Allinson, senior global science officer for BirdLife International told The Guardian. There are now 1,469 bird species globally threatened with extinction–One out of every eight bird species worldwide, according to the report. This represents an increase of 40% since the group’s first global assessment of threatened species in 1988. Many familiar birds from around the world were highlighted because of rapidly decreasing populations, including Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, European Turtle-Dove, and several species of Old World vultures. Topping the list of the biggest threats to bird populations, based on number of species affected, are agricultural expansion and intensification, followed by deforestation, invasive species, and hunting and trapping. “The threats driving the extinction crisis are many and varied, but invariably of humanity’s making…and most species are impacted by multiple, interrelated threats,” cautions the report.” https://www.allaboutbirds.org/2018-global-report-40-of-worlds-birds-are-in-decline/ So what can we do to save our bird populations? Surely most of us are at least able to plant some native trees and also donate to local conservation organisations!

Grant Allen | 01 November 2019  

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