This Saturday is World Cassowary Day! So Steph (not Liz, obviously) is delighted to bring you a guest post by regular bird guest poster Michael on this magnificent bird. Forgive the tagging – although Hayley couldn’t join us for this post, I can never let go an opportunity to tag something Ornithology’s David and Margaret, and nor should I be expected to. If you’d like to hear more from him, you should follow Michael on twitter.
Statement from Liz: FOR THE RECORD, it was I who suggested that we get Michael and/or Hayley to commemorate World Cassowary Day. I can’t say I’m delighted to share a continent with prehistoric murder birbs, but I respect them and their homicidal ways, and I wish them well. (I also wish they had a whole continent just to themselves, where they can be TERRIFYING in peace, but I understand and acknowledge that my attitude of Birb Separatism is problematic.)`
So, the bird. In most respects, they’re pretty basic swans – a bit smaller (and less deadly) than mute swans and not as impressive in the air as the migratory arctic swans, but shockingly, startlingly black. The idea of a black swan was so outlandish to Europeans, that the phrase ‘black swan’ had entered relatively common usage in 16th century English to describe something impossible, a usage that fell out of favour once they were ‘discovered’ by Dutch voyagers in Western Australia in the late 1600s. While they’ve since become widely associated with Western Australia (they’re the state bird and appear on the WA coat of arms), black swans are found throughout the country, from Cairns to Hobart, Adelaide to Broome. (Steph notes: because they’re the WA state bird, I actually had NO IDEA they were found across the country until I moved to Victoria and called everyone a liar)
Black swans are vegetarian, subsisting on algae, weeds and even grazing on grass like weird winged cows. They’re nomadic, happily moving great distances to follow the availability of food and water, but their movements remain poorly understood – anyone spotting a swan wearing a neck tag should take note of it and enter it at http://www.myswan.org.au, a fantastic research study that makes use of the general public’s bird enthusiasm to collect data on a population of 150 swans based loosely at Albert Park Lake. The researchers running this study have also punctured one of the major myths – black swan fidelity. While it’s true that swans tend to partner up for life, the researchers have found that Albert Park Lake is like a giant 1970s key party, with nearly 20% of all cygnets born the product of illicit cross-couple action. Saucy.
I’m not sure how to score black swans – they’re elegant and impressive birds and spotting a flying vee of them above the city skies never fails to give me a little lift, but they’re also aggressive and lacking the charisma of other iconic Australian birds. I’m feeling a bit like David and Margaret reviewing a dull Australian movie – I’ll give them three feathers, but I’m probably being too generous.
The black swan is a philosophical impossibility. Or at least it was supposed to be. Well done Australia in upturning centuries of inward-looking European thought, as per usual.
The idea originated with Juvenal and his line rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno, or “a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan” meaning someone whose qualities are so rare that they are essentially impossible and don’t exist. Satirists, they love a metaphor, especially snarky Roman ones.
Once the existence of black swans became knowledge in Europe, apart from ruining a lot of doctoral theses in philosophy across the continent, they also came to fascinate scientific circles in the way that general excitement over this ‘new’ southern land invigorated explorers, scientists and, as it turned out, even a French emperor.
Did you know that at the exact same time that George Bass and Matthew Flinders were circumnavigating and mapping Australia, there was a French team of explorers lead by Nicolas Baudin sent under the aegis of Napoleon doing the exact same thing, just in the opposite direction? Of course you don’t, because no one writing British-favoured history wants to admit that the French were good at anything, and indeed, we wouldn’t have had such a complete map of Australia at this time without these French explorers – you can still see their influence in French-sounding names for landmarks stretching from Victoria all the way to the Western Australia coast. No one also likes to admit that had history gone differently, half of Australia could have been a French colony (called TERRE NAPOLEON!).
So anyway, Baudin’s expedition also busily collected many specimens of Australian fauna and flora. They may have been officially collecting for the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, but Napoleon got into Baudin’s ear to make sure that plenty was being set aside for his wife, as Josephine had a very active interest in the natural sciences. Her home, Malmaison, ended up a free-ranging menagerie for a variety of animals from around the globe, including kangaroos, emus, and cockatoos.
But her favourites out of all her animals were her pair of black swans. They were also the only Australian animal to successfully breed at Malmaison, increasing to seven at the time of Josephine’s death in 1814. Many of the illustrations and engravings of the Malmaison grounds from the time feature the swans prominently. Europe was basically losing its MIND over them, and why wouldn’t you? BLACK SWANS.
If I may also add a quick addendum to Michael’s discussion of black swan breeding habits, there has been research that has discovered that a sizeable proportion of black swan pairs are actually homosexual males, and that they actively seek out opportunities to raise chicks by either stealing eggs from other nests, or entering into polyamorous threesomes with a female swan in order gain eggs, which I think is PRETTY DARN RAD.
In short, black swans are amazing. Who doesn’t have room to fill their heart with endless love for the bird that made thousands of years of crusty philosophers pop their monocles, whose propensity towards same sex relationships is an entirely normal occurrence, who were Empress Josephine’s favourite bird? HOW CAN YOU SAY NO TO EMPRESS JOSEPHINE?
This month’s bird post is dedicated by me to Liz, because (spoilers) it’s all about hating birds, and I laughed.
When you are told as a child to keep away from a particular bird because it is aggressive and will attack you with the spurs on its wings if you get too close to it, that information tends to adhere itself to your mind like a pervasive horror story. An aggressive bird with SPURS on its WINGS. And they’re EVERYWHERE – parks, road verges, beaches. I distinctly remember them flocking to the local swimming pool that I swam at multiple times a week, stalking the grassy perimeters and peering malevolently at children with legs nicely suitable for stabbing (or so it seemed to me).
The masked lapwing, commonly known as the plover and indeed I intend to continue referring to them as plovers as that is how I’ve always known them, and I’m sure Michael will have a lot of indignation to expend on those like me who insist on calling birds common names that are completely incorrect genus designations, WHATEVER MICHAEL SOMETIMES SCIENCE IS JUST TOO OBDURATELY WORDY TO BEAR, is a terror bird in my mind. They are also, as I’ve discovered in researching this piece, a somewhat misrepresented boogeyman of a bird.
It’s been quite anticlimactic to learn that plovers are actually for the most part very wary of humans, despite their mostly blasé attitudes towards living in close quarters with them. Their breeding habits causes them to make their nests on the ground in open spaces, hence why you will see them hanging out in parks, on golf courses, and airports, the latter of which where they become a bird strike risk due to their tenacity in refusing to budge from their nesting area. Plovers have, out of necessity, developed an impressive array of diversionary tactics in luring away potential predators from their nests and chicks, including loud distracting calls, pretending to have only one leg in order to appear as an easier target, and, of course, swooping and attacking with their bright yellow wing spurs.
Yet these violent attacks are generally only last resorts, and more often directed at birds like ravens, and carnivores like domestic cats and dogs. Humans, it seems, very rarely experience the worst of plover attacks, and as much as I googled ‘Australian man savaged by enraged plovers’ I couldn’t find anything worse than folks getting a scare. Plovers are master bluffers, it appears.
Indeed, the more I read about plovers, my fear receded into a feeling of intense pity. While they can survive in close quarters with human habitation, the stresses of ground nesting combined with the dangers of suburban living results in many plover pairs never breeding successfully. Their eggs, which blend into lawn scrub so well, are often trampled by unwary feet, or blasted into nothingness by lawn mowers. Their willingness to live among humans simultaneously protects them from traditional predators, yet opens up so many other threats.
There are a pair of plovers that habitually hang around the front lawn of the house next door to my parents’. On the recent Easter weekend I went out to watch them (safely, from a distance). Apparently a breeding pair, they pootled about up and down the lawn, long yellow legs betraying their close relation to wading birds, fossicking in the grass for insects and making very occasional calls to each other, but otherwise silent as sentinels. I thought about childhood monsters, and of needlessly demonised animals, and I felt desperately sad.
Steph has started us off pretty gently with this series, serving up a couple of lovable icons (galah and emu) for Hayley and me to rave over. You’d think she’d ease us into more controversial waters gently, throwing up something inoffensive we could be a bit less hyperbolic about (I’m thinking one of the honeyeaters perhaps). But no, she’s gone and assigned us Australia’s worst bird, the avian equivalent of The Room or Plan 9 from Outer Space without the camp ironic value.
I’ll acknowledge that I may be slightly biased here. You see I’ve never forgiven the masked lapwing for ruining my shot at a glorious cricketing career. I moved to Caloundra as a 10 year old and signed up for the local cricket team immediately, so I could impress potential school chums with my sporting prowess. As the new kid I was quickly assigned to fine leg – a dull outfield position where you don’t see a lot of action. Unless you’re playing at Russell Barker Memorial Park, where the lapwings conveniently nest near the fine leg boundary and then spend their Saturday mornings bombarding whichever noob has been sent into their territory. Needless to say the opposition scored many a boundary down fine leg way as I ducked and weaved, failing to pay any attention at all to the game going on around me. My sporting reputation never recovered.
So yes, this is personal, but I think I can still make my case. The masked lapwing is an aggressive, violent bird – don’t buy into Hayley’s nonsense about them being more scared of you than you are of them – these birds have leg spurs and they’re not afraid to use them. Read the 241 comments on this thread and tell me they’re harmless. Read some of the tips here: “avoid making eye contact or staring directly at the birds,” and: “don’t run away in a panic as this could encourage them.” These are not nice animals. When they’re not wounding adults and terrifying children, masked lapwings like to try to take down passenger aircraft – they even have their own fact sheet on the Australian Transport Safety Bureau website. These birds want to kill you and your family.
Their awful shrieking call combined with their vicious spurred dive-bombing and frankly monstrous faces are enough to have me rank them pretty low on my personal countdown of Australian birds, but the point that takes them right to the bottom is their breathtaking stupidity. Masked Lapwing chicks can’t fly when they first hatch and have to stumble around foraging for food until they get their wings up to full power. So what do their parents do? Build their nests on traffic islands, in the middle of roundabouts or by a busy airport runway, that’s what. And when I say ‘build their nests’, I mean scrape a tiny divot in the ground and dump some eggs in it. No wonder many pairs never successfully breed. I was going to give them a feather or two for their ability to fake an injury to lure predators away from their nests, but why evolve such a complex skill when you could just develop the ability to make a nest somewhere other than the local dog park? Idiots.
(ed: I found a video of them swooping and making their vicious noise PURELY FOR ACADEMIC INTEREST)
The final tipping point is their common name. These birds *are not plovers*. They are closely related to plovers, but you can tell that they’re not actual plovers because plovers are awesome. Plovers migrate from Siberia to Australia, plovers are cute, plovers do not viciously attack young children who are merely trying to make friends in a new town by joining the local sporting team. The masked lapwing is terrible even for a lapwing, lacking the cool mohawk that gives its European cousin so much cred.