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Climate science for the birds

  • 01 November 2019


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.

It 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