Out on Lygon Street in the oppressive summer-heat of Melbourne I saw what could be the shape of things to come when it comes to urban wildlife.
A raven, panting with beak open, tip-toed across a hot tin roof to drink putrid water trapped in a gutter above a restaurant and in the only park within sight, a magpie-lark stabbed at souvlaki wrapping.
I forsake the woods around my home In Dynnyrne once a year for the urban environment of inner Melbourne, usually to spend a few dsays watching the Australian tennis open. I can never switch off from my birds, however, and am irresistibly drawn to the few that make the human world their home in the Victorian capital.
In past years I’ve discovered welcome swallows darting among the cornflowers planted in an urban garden close to the Yarra River, and a night heron hunting the banks of the river itself, amid the trendy nightlife of the South Bank.
This year my wildlife experience was confined to the few hectares of Argyle Square mid-way along the famous Carlton St restaurant strip. Although an internet guide described it as a haven for birds “who seek refuge in its trees”, it provided slim pickings for the bird-watcher.
All the same, the tinny call of the magpie-lark told me I was in an Australian city far from my own, as did the more strident caw of the little raven, replacing Hobart’s urban crow family member, the forest raven.
The only other native birds I saw were silver gulls, a lone magpie and passing rainbow lorikeets. I won’t even mention the ubiquitous hill mynas, introduced pests from India who have come to dominate the streetscapes of Australian cities, but thankfully not Hobart.
Introduced trees and shrubs also dominated in Argyle Square, save for a few lone sugar gums, but I do not have a problem with exotic trees in open spaces planned in Victorian times – like the square’s elms, London planes and cherries – because they are part of Australia’s historic urban fabric.
I have quoted from research in the past revealing that parks and trees in cities blunt the brutality of glass and concrete, and so are beneficial to the mental health and well-being of human city dwellers. Not only do trees and flowers bring a calmness and tranquillity our busy lives, they also provide a haven for native birds and the smaller mammals, together with plants. The parks provide a window on regional wildlife, sometimes showcasing species found nowhere else on earth.
On my latest visit to Melbourne, I read of a growing environmental movement in Britain aimed at not so much advocating the planning and planting of new parks, but ensuring existing ones are preserved from deterioration through lack of funding or from commercial development.
Closer to home, there has been much debate in Hobart recently over urban planning, especially the height of new buildings, but little attention appears to have been given to open spaces.
With planning initiatives, we have a choice in our cities between the anguished, raucous cry of a thirsty raven, or more soothing sounds – like the tinkling song of the scarlet robin.