MY late mother-in-law always said that when she returned to Australia from foreign travels she did not believe she was home until she heard the sweet flute-like notes of the magpie song.
Jean Betts lived in Howrah where the sight of the magpies singing from the lampposts and telegraph wires cemented time and place. She’d even feed the magpies in her garden and stories of magpies dive-bombing passersby on the nearby Clarence Street would bring a smile to her face.
In turn I always think of my mother-in-law when I see magpies, and receive reports in spring of the birds doing what comes naturally to “maggies” in defence of real or imaged threats to their nesting territories.
Magpies have been in the news in recent weeks, not because of their anti-social behaviour but because it has been revealed that these symbols of Australia are vanishing from both the bush and suburbia.
A survey by Birdlife Australia, partly funded by the federal government, has painted an alarming picture of not just the demise of magpies but of other birds familiar to Australians. Among these are the kookaburra, the willie wagtail and the magpie-lark.
When it comes to news reports about threatened and endangered species these usually concern birds, animals and reptiles which are generally rare in the first place and live in remote and inaccessible places.
Birds like the orange-bellied parrot and, to a lesser degree, the swift parrot are generally only seen by birdwatchers and scientists who go in search of them. And news stories in newspapers and on television usually concern the work of such people, with taxpayers’ money, trying to ensure the survival of these rare species.
What has been particularly worrying about the latest national survey conducted by Birdlife Australia’s 10,000 members is that an overall trend in birdlife decline is now affecting common birds that people see and hear every day, in their own gardens or suburban parks and beyond. These are the very birds that people have an affinity and empathy with, the birds that cement our connection with nature.
The demise of birds is happening across all environments, from the semi-deserts of the interior, the grasslands of the west, the rainforest and dry woodlands in the south-east, east and north, to the shores around our coast.
The threats to our birds are many and varied and often single issues like forest clearance are combined with others, like increasing incidence of bushfires in some areas.
Along coastlines, both in Australia and in eastern and northern Asia from where our migratory shorebirds travel, and draining of wetlands and general disturbance on beaches by increasing human activity is a serious threat.
In Tasmania two waders which visit in summer from breeding grounds within the Arctic Circle, the eastern curlew and the curlew sandpiper, have virtually vanished from our coastline. Both species were declared critically endangered by the Australian government in May.
The average person, though, might not see these birds, and notice their demise, as I have said. With suburban and garden birds it is different.
The magpie is a case in point, and I’m sure my mother-in-law was not alone in describing it as an “icon” of the Australian landscape. It’s a species that seems to embody the very soul and spirit of the nation, in both its white-backed and black-backed forms found across the country.
The magpie is so woven into the fabric of Australian life that it provides the nickname of the Collingwood footy team, whose players wear a guernsey in its black-and-white colours.
My mother-law-law, though, did not have Collingwood in mind when she extolled the magpies’ virtues. Roy Cazaly had been a family friend and he was never associated with that flock.