Steph realised too late she should have asked special bird correspondents Hayley and Michael to post about penguins for Penguin Awareness Day (tomorrow, January 20). But if there’s a bird Steph knows, it’s penguins. So today Steph is very pleased to bring you Steph talking about penguins, an occasionally Australian birb.
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.)`
This month in Birds of Australia with Hayley and Michael, we bring you Michael being wrong.
Look, I want it straight from the beginning that I love parrots. Parrots are my favourite species of bird alongside owls and ordinarily I adore all varieties of these extremely clever, colourful and cute birds.
But rainbow lorikeets are destructive, brightly coloured emissaries from BIRD HELL.
“Oh but they’re so beautiful Hayley, with all their flashy bright colours, like a casino or carnival sideshow alley, two other things that distract me with visuals while committing untold evil right under my nose.” NO, WRONG, WHY DID YOU EVER LISTEN TO KEATS WHEN HE SAID BEAUTY EQUALED TRUTH, KEATS DIDN’T KNOW SHIT ABOUT BIRDS AND WAS FULL OF LIIIIIIIIIES.
I am here to prove to you that rainbow lorikeets are nasty, bullying, loud, messy, feral birds that you should never let near your person, your garden, your city, your life. Order of the day is: rainbow lorikeets are bastards.
Rainbow lorikeets are highly territorial about their breeding areas, and will aggressively attack other birds to drive them away, and not just smaller birds like noisy miners, but large birds like magpies. I’m not sure if you’re aware of the dangerous nature of the Australian magpie, but they are not to be trifled with, and the fact that flocks of lorikeets regularly succeed in driving off nesting magpies proves that lorikeets are FUCKING TERRIFYING.
What is most terrifying about lorikeets is when they become established in a non-native environment. A release of lorikeets in Perth in the 1960s (rumoured to have originated from the University of WA, ACADEMICS YOU SHOULD KNOW BETTER) has resulted in a feral population that has officially been declared pests. Settling in the metro area, giant flocks of lorikeets now travel daily, using the highways to navigate, and descend upon the orchards and vineyards of the Swan Valley stripping them of their fruit, which has resulted in the Western Australian government instigating culls of the bird. They also compete with many native WA species for nesting hollows, muscling out species such as the purple-crowned lorikeet and Carnaby’s black cockatoo, the latter of which is endangered. There are also introduced populations of lorikeets in Auckland, New Zealand, which also precipitated a government enforced cull, and in Hong Kong. Rainbow lorikeets could descend upon your city AT ANY MOMENT.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, rainbow lorikeets are noise polluters. You will know when a flock of lorries are in the neighbourhood because the noise is WINDOW SHATTERINGLY LOUD AND OBNOXIOUS. How anyone can enjoy these shrill, piercing shrieks I have no idea. Walking under flocks of them rustling about in trees I have to clasp my hands over my ears so as not to go immediately deaf. Also if flocks take up residence in your neighbourhood, along with noise-cancelling headphones make sure you get shoes you don’t mind been ruined by MOUNTAINS OF LORRY SHIT.
I should at least give rainbow lorikeets some grudging credit for adapting so well to urban environments, but there’s one way this adaptation is actually killing them – idiot humans feeding them food that is bad for their little guts and giving them bacterial bowel infections. So if you wind up somewhere where rainbow lorikeet feeding is an attraction, don’t participate, don’t leave bread or honey or artificial nectar out for them in your own garden, it is all a very bad idea. Especially because they’ll just swarm in making a horrid noise, poop everywhere, muscle out all the other birds and ruin your fruit trees.
As I’m sure you’ve realised by now, I like to cultivate an identity as a bit of a bird nerd – constantly carting my binoculars around with me, correcting people who talk about birds (“They’re silver gulls. There’s actually no such bird as a seagull.” etc) and spoiling holidays by insisting on taking a detour past a swamp or a sewerage pond. It’s all part of my shtick. And key to any self-respecting bird-nerds shtick is a disdain for the showy and obvious birds, the common and colourful birds. “Sure, sure, that rainbow bee-eater is lovely,” I’m meant to say, “but look at the subtle stippling on that brown thornbill. Now that’s beautiful!”
Well pish posh to that. I guess I better hand in my twitchin’ licence and my binoculars, because I am an absolute sucker for gaudy, colourful birds – the more extravagant the better. There’s a certain embarrassing pride that comes from knowing your thornbills from your weebills (full disclosure: I misidentify these birds about 70% of the time), but nothing beats a ludicrously colourful parrot screeching aggressively in your face. Nothing.
I know, I know – mean ol’ rainbow lorikeets are the bullies of the parrot world, driving other species out of nesting hollows and officially achieving ‘pest’ status in WA, but like Rory Gilmore confronted with Jess’ broodingly attractive awfulness, I just don’t care. I’ll take beauty every time. And look, rainbow lorikeets are ridiculously, astoundingly beautiful. LOOK!
They’re so common around Australian cities that we forget how remarkable they are – we barely even glance up as they cut across the sky like little groups of flying jewels. Ask an overseas visitor what they think of them and I guarantee you they love the goddamn hell out of them. The only reason SOME PEOPLE don’t is because they’ve stopped really looking at them, or have generally lost the ability to feel joy. As Miss Piggy famously said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.”
It’s worth remembering that the current oversized population of rainbow lorikeets is a slightly odd aberration – up until the 1960s, rainbow lorikeets were almost never seen in Victoria and were scarce around Sydney. For some reason, the population blew up in the 1970s and 80s and they spread throughout the Eastern states – it’s all a bit mysterious, although increasing urban growth of native flowering plants, feeding stations and even Currumbin Sanctuary have been blamed.
They’re now firmly a bird of the urban environment, feeding on an array of flowers but also on fruit, seeds, insects and, in a horrifying recent development, raw meat. They nest in hollows, which they aggressively stake out, putting pressure on meeker parrot species who are bullied out of nesting sites (although it’s hard to feel sorry for the much bigger Australian Ringnecks, who really just need to toughen up a bit). And yes, they’re considered pests by some people. Particularly by farmers in WA, who complain that the birds destroy their precious orchards. It’s worth remembering though, that farmers will complain about anything – if we listened to farmers, Western Australia wouldn’t have any Australian ringnecks left to worry about because the farmers would have shot them all). If we listened to farmers, we’d be shooting flying foxes left, right and centre (oh wait, we already are).
Look, the point is: farmers love nothing more than complaining (except maybe shooting native animals), so I’m not going to listen to their whining about one of the most beautiful birds in the world. Get over it farmers! Who eats fruit anyway? Rainbow lorikeets bring colour and joy to the drabness of the city, bring beauty to our otherwise grey urban existences and scare the shit out of our cat when they fly, screeching, just a few metres above our balcony. I bloody love them, and so should you.
Bird: Rainbow Lorikeet
Hayley: One feather
Michael: Five feathers
Yes, after a teeny tiny delay, we return to Birds of Australia with Hayley and Michael! This month, The Black Swan.
The black swan is more symbol than bird – a species that was commonly used as a metaphor in European society for more than 1500 years before it was first actually sighted by Europeans. It has since leant its name to statistical theories, swashbuckling pirate movies, Thom Yorke songs, batshit crazy Natalie Portman movies (and a subsequent, related fad diet!) and even the Bosnian special forces. I could spend my few hundred words rambling about the powerful symbolism of the black swan, but I’m meant to be a bird guy and this whole column is meant to be about birds. Besides, I’m sure Hayley will have that angle covered.
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?
Bird: Black Swan
Hayley: Four Feathers
Michael: Three Feathers
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.
Bird: Masked Lapwing
Michael: 0 feathers
Hayley: 2 pity feathers
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
Dear No Award; I’m excited to be bringing you a new monthly column here at No Award: Birds of Australia with Hayley and Michael, surely Ornithology’s Margaret and David. I say ‘I’ despite this being a shared blog because my co-host, Liz, is on record as having some bird issues. Please avert your eyes if your issues are like hers, and go bitch about birds on her personal blog!
I’ve got some strong feelings about birds in Australia. We say birds in Australia because this column will not be limited to birds indigenous to Australia; Michael and Hayley will also end up visiting introduced and exotic birds! Yes! Excellent! Each bird will be described, analysed and discussed, rated for gender politics, post-colonialism, awesomeness and whatever else our reviewers feel like, and then given a rating out of five feathers.
Dr Michael Livingston is a professional killjoy, occasional bird-nerd and part-time food blogger. You can find him writing about vego food at Where’s the Beef. Hayley Inch works for a bunch of film festivals. She writes frequently about food at Ballroom Blintz, very sporadically about film at 240 Films, and about many Melbourney things at Broadsheet. She’d be a better birdwatcher if she didn’t get so loud when excited.
Please do not be scared by our first bird, the Emu, which is basically the greatest bird ever after the penguin.
It’s fitting that we start this column off with the Emu, probably Australia’s most famous bird (rivalled by what, the Kookaburra? The Lyrebird?). It adorns the Australian coat of arms and the 50c piece, is the namesake of Australia’s preeminent ornithology journal and even has its own brand of beer. The emu’s appeal is pretty straightforward – it’s two metres tall, flightless, distributed across the entire country (except Tassie) and a common sight for anyone driving through country Australia. Shockingly, the emu wasn’t even nominated in the recent Australia’s Favourite Bird poll, an oversight I can’t begin to understand.
My second vivid bird-related memory (the first is being hunted by a terrifying pack of ‘domesticated’ vicious geese as a toddler) is of a baffling emu that roamed Brampton Island in the 1980s (for a brief time our family was upwardly mobile and holidayed on tropical islands). You’d see it loitering outside the cabins or roaming the beach, kicking up spray as it sprinted through the sea foam. It’s a sad story looking back – it was probably dumped on the island for novelty value and must have been lonely and confused. But as a kid it just felt unworldly – being a few metres from this odd creature, hearing its weird drumming calls and watching it sprint at incredible speeds was a hint at how compelling the natural world can be. Despite seeing hundreds of emus since then, a tiny remnant of that visceral thrill still sparks every time. They’re abundant birds, but there’s nothing common about them.
They’re distinctive, but not particularly attractive birds, with drab brown and black feathers and a splash of blue at the neck. Their wings are tiny and useless, while their legs are strong enough to rip down fences, fend off dingoes and propel them at speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour. They eat anything and everything – native and introduced plants and fruits, bugs, moths, caterpillars, charcoal, stones – they’ll even eat car keys apparently. The emu’s gender politics are excellent, with the male taking on most of the work of bringing up the young. He spends two months incubating around a dozen beautiful green eggs, surviving only on body fat, dew and any scraps he can reach from the nest and losing a third of his body weight before the chicks hatch. Meanwhile, the female wanders off after laying the eggs and may breed again elsewhere, with another male emu.
So they’re a fascinating, distinctive and surprisingly feminist bird – I’m taking half a mark off because of their cold dead eyes and aggressive posturing and another half a mark purely because of this dreadful song that has been stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this. So four feathers out of five from me.
Michael has given an excellent overview of this most iconic of Australian birds, but if we’re going to talk emus (pronunciation guide: ee-mews, not ee-moos, for the love of god) we must address the most batshit amazing thing about them: the Emu War, aka that time the Australian government unleashed the might of the military against a species of native fauna, and the fauna WON.
So it’s 1932, and bunch of returned WWI soldiers had taken to farming the Campion district in Western Australia. The only problem? EMUS. EMUS EVERYWHERE. Emus eating wheat and knocking down fences, thousands upon thousands of them. What were the diggers to do?
The farmers petitioned the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, with a plan. See, they had military experience and figured that there was only one thing that was going to successfully eradicate their feathered foe: MACHINE GUNS. They figured that if a brace of Lewis machine guns were so good at mowing down soldiers, they would do the same for the emus. Sir George was only too ready to agree, figuring that the birds would make ingenious target practice for the idling Australian military.
The emus weren’t having with any of this colonialist tame-the-land-and-shoot-all-the-native-species bullshit. Once the deployed soldiers actually started having a go at massacring some birds in November 1932 they quickly discovered that the emus were devious strategists, and ambushed mobs would very quickly split into smaller groups and scatter, making them much harder targets to hit than anticipated. Even hitting the emus apparently didn’t faze them; soldiers were gobsmacked at how many bullets an emu could take without bringing the bird down (so emus are clearly well-disguised Terminators).
Major G.P.W. Meredith, military head of the campaign, later claimed that just under 1000 emus died during the brief war, with estimates that a further 2500 birds would have died from injuries, but considering there were 20000 emus in the area it hardly made much difference. The war became a laughing stock in parliament, with Pearce being labelled “the Minister for the Emu War” and prompting this hilarious exchange in the House of Representatives:
Mr Thorby (NSW): “Who is responsible for the farce of hunting emus with machine guns mounted on lorries? Is the Defence Department meeting the cost?
Prime Minister Lyons: “I have been told the Defence Department will not be paying the bill.”
Mr James (NSW): “Is a medal to be struck for this war?”
The Emu War barely lasted a month, and despite repeated calls throughout the next few years from Campion residents to bring back the army to deal with all these goddamn emus, no one in authority was ever game to take them on again. The emu was just too invincible an opponent.
So as you can see, emus are freaking bad-arse and you should afford them with RESPECT. I have to take off half a feather due to them not being the most lethal ratite in the country (that award goes to the southern cassowary, alias a motherfucking dinosaur in bird form), but otherwise the emu receives a highly commendable four and a half feathers out of five.
Michael: Four out of Five Feathers
Hayley: Four and a Half Feathers