Dear No Award; here we are back again with our continuing series on Australia’s birds. Why do I think this is the greatest thing ever? Uh, because I’m a Penguin. This month sees a devastating lack of fights between Michael and Hayley as they agree over the Galah.
For some reason bird names are pretty common as insults – think about it: cuckoo, turkey (as Homer explains), coot, chicken, dodo, even tit (although the insult may have a different etymology than the bird name). Australia has added a couple of classics to the list: drongo and today’s bird of the month: galah.
The galah is one of Australia’s most distinctive birds – a small cockatoo with a bright pink chest and face, grey back and white crest – commonly seen in large flocks throughout most of mainland Australia. The precise reason that they’ve come to be synonymous with foolishness in Australian idiom is unclear – there’s some suggestion that it’s due to the galah’s propensity to migrate south (towards colder weather) during winter, although actual research shows that they’re pretty sedentary birds. More likely it’s down to their noisy, squawky calls and slightly ludicrous colours. Either way, it’s gone global as an ocker insult thanks to Home and Away.
As with our first bird of the month, galahs are one of the rare birds that seems to have benefited from European settlement, with land clearing creating vast swathes of their ideal open habitats and the provision of water for stock dramatically expanding their range (although they remain absent from the very northern tips of the country). They’ll eat basically everything – fruit, seeds, bugs, grass, grains – whatever’s going. Their sexual politics are a bit confusing – they pair up for life, suggesting a pretty conservative outlook, but there are records of inter-species love, with galahs breeding with sulphur-crested cockatoos, little corellas and Major Mitchell’s cockatoos. Freaky.
People regularly ask me what my favourite bird is and, as impossible as that question is, I’ve often answered the galah. It’s not as spectacular looking as the king parrot or crimson rosella, but there’s just something so unlikely about the pink and grey stylings that galahs get around in – it doesn’t really seem like it should occur in nature. There’s also their playfulness – galahs are well regarded as pets, but even in the wild you see them mucking around and seemingly just having fun. Watch a flock of galahs next time they fly over – they dodge and weave for no real reason, squawk just to hear the sounds of their own voices and seem to be having the time of their lives. Of course I’m anthropomorphising them, but life as a galah just looks like great fun. They’re common around Melbourne and spotting a flock flying over Princes Park on my walk to work gives my spirits a lift – they’re a very cheerful creature.
Their raucous mischievousness is seen by some as charmless – my partner Cindy called them “the dude-bros of the sky” when I told her I was writing this. There’s also their rather unfortunate portrayal in this ACT health campaign, which is terrifically insulting to one of our natural icons. They have been known to get hammered on fermented over-ripe fruit, but they seem like pretty lovable drunks – sure they’d laugh at their own jokes and slur their words a bit, but nobody would mind, they’d all be having too much fun.
I’m giving them 5 feathers – they’re a national treasure.
I was hoping that Michael and I would get into our first proper dust up and I would get the chance to call him a flaming galah (because it would make Alf Stewart proud), but here we are again in agreement over a particular bird’s general excellence. And really how could we not be, who on earth doesn’t like the wonderful cheeky clown that is the galah? New test to discover whether your acquaintances are actually androids from the future: ask them if they don’t like galahs.
No matter how glum I may be at any time, spotting a few of these candy-coloured fellows chirruping among themselves on power lines, or fossicking about on a grassy verge at the side of the road is enough to put a smile immediately back onto my po-faced dial. They’re just so sweet.
Once I started thinking about my feelings about them more deeply, however, I started to feel slightly off about the sweeping designation of a ‘galah’ meaning someone who is foolish, stupid, or somehow lacking in various graces. This seems like a horrendous cop-out to the bird in question. There is the fact that parrots are among the most intelligent of all birds, probably only outstripped by the corvids (and even that is an argument likely to produce much teeth-gnashing and invective spewing from bird nerds). In captivity galahs are well known for their highly developed skills in picking up speech – look at this little guy who can whistle, sing, meow and say complete sentences that correlate with his owner’s actions and speech. I hardly think that this is the behaviour of a stupid animal.
And then there is the fact that galahs are some of the most visually striking birds in the country. No, they don’t have the eye-popping flash of rosellas or king parrots, but that kind of bright ostentation is too vulgar for them. Better to dress their wings in grey, crown their crest in dusky white, and have the soft rose flush of their breasts carry the indication of their cheery personalities. They’re like that friend we all have who is happy and always joking and laughing, and that’s what you remember most about them, to the point that when they show up to a fancy party or dinner in super fine duds, tasteful and understated yet perfectly cut and tailored with one bright accessory that completely expresses their quirky, kind personality that your mouth drops open in shock as the realisation steals over you that not only are they the most fun to be around but they’re also the most together person you know and it’s been in front of your face the entire time and aren’t you just a bit of an idiot. What I’m saying is that galahs are total secret GQ motherfuckers and we are all chumps.
Anyone who doesn’t think the galah is a 5 feather bird needs to be catapulted into the sun.
Jeeze Michael, I really hope we disagree next month, all this cordial agreement is giving me indigestion.
Michael: 5 feathers
Hayley: 5 feathers