May 22, 2018

Gangsters in the ‘hood’

rainbow-lorikeet-webThugs, muggers and bullies. The worst of Melbourne’s gangland violence may have passed but the standover men, and women, are still fighting their corner in the backstreets of St Kilda. 

I’m not talking here about the notorious gangland families  –  the Morans, Williams and Sunshine Crew – but the gangsters of the bird world: the mynas and miners, the crows and currawongs, the wattlebirds and the magpies. 

Added to the nefarious mix is a bird that hides its aggression behind a coat of sublime beauty, the rainbow lorikeet, and a species whose sweet song belies its belligerence, the European blackbird. 

A late afternoon stroll in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens signals that all is not well in birdland, at least in this green oasis not so very far from the St Kilda Road police station from where all those operations to root out the gangland assassins were planned and executed. In the botanical gardens, however, the law of, dare I say it, the jungle still rules supreme. 

The trouble with the urban and suburban environment is that it favours not a diversity of bird species as found in untrammelled pristine areas of nature but those birds that can coexist with man. These are mainly the larger, bolder, aggressive species and they tend to dominate and force smaller, shyer birds out of gardens and city parks. 

Staying in St Kilda at the start of a bird-watching trip that was to take me to some wilder parts of Victoria, I seized the opportunity to swot up on my mainland birds in the botanical gardens, a location I had not visited before. 

I was in for a disappointment. I had hoped to find bellbirds and some other species of honeyeaters but in this large and varied family I could only see and hear red wattlebirds, who appeared determined to carve up and share the “hood” with another aggressive honeyeater, the noisy miner. 

Their turf, however, was constantly invaded by the scourge of mainland urban bird-watching, the introduced common myna from India that has taken hold in many mainland coastal cities, but thankfully is yet to be found in Tasmania. 

The underbelly scenario was made complete by marauding Australian crows and magpies, although I must say these species tend to keep their distance and not engage in the territorial wars of the larger honeyeaters and miners. 

As the wattlebirds croaked their raucous call that sounds like they are shouting the words “tobacco box”, rainbow  lorikeets streaked and screeched overhead, at one point sending a party of smaller musk lorikeets on their way. 

As parrot numbers fall across Australia, with some species threatened with extinction in the wild, the rainbow lorikeet is rapidly expanding its population as the birds find year-round food supplies in suburban gardens festooned with exotic vegetation. 

The rainbow lorikeets, building their population in Tasmania after being released from or escaping aviaries,  are making an impact here, moving into the territories of Tasmanian native birds, and competing with declining species like the swift parrot for vital tree-hole real estate. 

The suburbs with all-year flowering plants might appear a fecund environment but the manicured lawns and tidy hedgerows and flower beds do not deliver food and hiding and nesting places for birds that are not pollen and nectar feeders, or parrots that prefer native food sources of gum and wattle. I could see no migrating swift parrots seeking out ironbark in winter, or insect eaters like silvereyes, fairy-wrens and robins in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. 

From the human perspective the botanical gardens are not, of course, a threatening and frightening place and the Friends of the Gardens have made great strides to restore them to the Victorian glory seen at their opening in 1861. The gardens provide a welcome relief from the stresses and strains of the city, and some of its more meaner streets. 

For birds, though, the gardens are not a place for the timid or faint-hearted.



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