WILDLIFE documentary-maker David Attenborough was once asked what was his favourite bird out of all the thousands of species he had seen on his travels worldwide.
He did not have to cup his hand to his chin in classic pose to think about it. He had an instant answer, all the while looking wistfully out of the window of his suburbanLondon home, to the garden beyond.
The bird wasn’t the wandering albatross that circumnavigates the globe on wings with a span 3.5 metres, the longest of any bird. It wasn’t the world’s heaviest flying bird, the great bustard, or the world’s smallest, the bee hummingbird ofCuba.
The bird Attenborough chose as his favourite was the humble redpoll, a nondescript finch that he often saw feeding on the seeds of silver birch trees in his garden in Kew.
Attenborough said he loved to see the redpolls in his garden because it made him feel connected to nature, made him realise he was part of “the bigger picture’‘, as he put it.
It’s a simple philosophy but one that I share when I look out of my own window and see the new holland honeyeaters going about their daily business. Like Attenborough and his redpolls, I have a special affinity with the new holland honeyeaters. I watch them throughout the seasons and sympathise with them when they are fluffing up their feathers in the cold of mid-winter or panting with beaks wide open in the heat of January.
I feel their anguish when the brown goshawk comes to call. Summoned by their alarm calls, I dash into the garden and break all the conventions of bird-watching to chase the goshawk off.
I gave up being a twitcher – those who chase rare birds merely for a life-list or annual record of birds spotted – long ago when I discovered the simple pleasure of owning a garden and creating an environment for birds of many species.
That’s not to say I eschew wild, exciting and romantic places and their wildlife in favour of the suburban, urban idyll. I have ambitions to see Kakadu, the outback atAlice Springs and the tropical rainforest of Cooktown. Also, I spent many years inAfrica and have plans to revisit some of my old haunts in the not-too-distant future.
The problem though with the Serengeti inTanzania, theOkavangoSwampsinBotswanaand even Kakadu, you are always a tourist and an outsider. You do not establish a bond with the creatures you see there, you do not share their environment on a daily basis. With birds, you don’t see the courting rituals, followed by nest building, and then delight in seeing a new batch of fledglings being fed by their parents.
They could be members of your own family, and indeed in a sense they are. Because the families of birds and animals and humans that share a specific environment, like a garden inHobart’sWaterworksValley, cut across the zoological division of class and order.
They represent a clan, a mob, in which, say, the forest raven is just as integral a part as a bennett’s wallaby, a barred bandicoot and a journalist who has the power to record the trials and tribulations of this remarkable community.
The lives of all entwine. We all share the relentless march of the clock which determines parts of the day when we are busier and more frantic than others, we travel on both long and short journeys to gain the things that sustain us, we share the rhythm of the seasons.
In early summer we find a sunny spot in the garden to replenish our strength after winter, and in winter itself we huddle around a warm log fire, either in the lounge or around the stove pipe on the roof: in the possum’s case, singeing our tails.
There is a convention in zoology that frowns on anthropomorphism. In the same way I intervene when the goshawk calls, and feed garden birds when I’m told I shouldn’t, I see my garden birds as people and I give them people names. There’s Reg the forest raven, Billy the butcherbird and a green rosella I call grace. Beyond my own family, the residents of my garden may comprise birds and animals, and frogs and skinks, but they display the same individual traits that make human life so complex, diverse and exciting.
So I see birds and mammals, from my observations in the garden, as individuals not merely members of a species. Giving them an individual name reinforces this process and the only names I know happen to be human ones.
I often wonder, in their calls, if birds have individual names for each other. We all know about the gentle cooing of doves in love but do garden birds also have insults for each other. Is the problem neighbour, the one in an adjoining territory who has designs on your own, a jackass. That’s a name humans inTasmania have given to the butcherbird, but I could hear the word being spat out by a butcherbird that for a brief spell made my garden his home and repelled a butcherbird neighbour in an acrimonious boundary dispute that would have done justice to a sitting of the Hobart City Councils planning committee. And then there’s music, the songs of birds that so often mirror those of humans in their phrasing and tone.
Song, were told in the bird books, is merely a device to proclaim territory, to advertise for a mate, and to give warning of danger.
I’m convinced that a blackbird singing lustily is deriving as much pleasure from the sheer act of singing, as I am when I dance around the living room with my air guitar listening to Eric Clapton. It’s not just about territory and broadcasting for a mate.
As is the case with science, in environmental writing there is a modern trend of discouraging anything that’s anthropomorphic. No Beatrice Potter here.
I’m not supposed to refer to Reg the raven in the column I write on bird-watching for the Mercury. So I won’t mention Reg or his mate Reginaare frequently my dinner guests on the balcony. And I won’t mention my conversations with Reg when I asked him to confirm my suspicions that he compares my behaviour with that of the tear-away juvenile ravens closer to town. What’s raven speak, those familiar caws of different length and pitch, for ageing rocker who never grew up?
What’s a little chiding among friends, and friends my garden birds certainly are.
Sometimes, after a glass of red wine or two, sitting on a wooden bench in the garden, a thought comes to me that birds and animals might see themselves at times mirrowed in human behaviour.
The strutting, confident noisy miner might see himself as russell crowe in his Gladiator role. The dashing, ruthless white goshawk thinks he’s the new James Bond, Daniel Craig, with a licence to kill. And now doubt there’s a wise owl, with heavy frown, lecturing the other birds at night on the dangers of anthropomorphism, or the avian term for such.
I love my garden and sometimes, especially in spring, I think there is no place I would rather be. As with anthropomorphism, the suburban environment itself is frowned on in some quarters. Many birdwatchers are cynical about garden birdwatching, describing our urban and semi-urban spaces as a false and harmful environment for wildlife. But I see the potential there for giving the people of the towns and cities a unique connection with animals and birds. A garden might be a man-made environment but all species can share it all the same, as I have said.
That is why these little patches of greenery that we see dotted about the suburbs, in and out of formal designated gardens and parks, are so important.
I live along the Sandy Bay Rivulet, this precious ribbon of greenery that snakes into the lower slopes of Mt Wellington. On a map it’s not much to look at really. It’s not the Serengeti that is crossed by millions of wildebeest on migration each each. It’s notAntarcticawhere hundreds of thousands of penguins huddle together. But I believe, as a microcosm of what has been, is and could be, it is just as important.
I’ve seen about 60 bird species in or above my garden. Bennett’s wallabies chew my lawn by night, and a barred bandicoot or two dig holes in it. My garden is important.
The first naturalists looked to gardens for their inspiration. Many of the early nature lovers were English clergymen and they looked to the village churchyard, a habitat so important for the study of British birds to this day that a book has been written about it.
My own hero is the Reverend Gilbert White, who spent virtually his whole life studying the wildlife of thevillageofSelbournein Hampshire, not so far from where I spent my childhood in neighbouringSurrey.
The opinion at the time, the mid to late 1700s, said swallows hibernated in mud during the winter but Gilbert White had his doubts. He instructed his gardener to dig up the banks of a muddy stream near his home to look for them. They, of course, drew a blank. With no evidence of hibernation, White went out into the fields at the end of summer to study swallows travelling south. Where did they go? he asked himself.
Opinion at the time said the warbler that made a liquid descending call was the same as the one that went “chiffchaff’‘. White cut a footpath through a beech wood at the end of his garden so he could study the warbler more closely. He separated what was to become known as the chiffchaff from the willow warbler. The breakthrough came by way of simple observation on his home turf, an observation that comes from sharing your environment, and life, with the creatures of the neighbourhood.
The naturalists of the backyard are too numerous to mention. But their published observations, like Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, are the backbone of environmental writing and environmental science.
What would the evolving environment moment in theUnited Stateshave been without David Henry Thoreau and hisWalden Pond. From an earlier time, I might even mention William Shakespeare who no doubt learned in his Stratford Upon Avon garden that “Thrice sings the thrush“ (the song thrush has three notes that it repeats after a brief pause).
The roots of natural history go back to Aristotle and other ancient philosophers who analysed the diversity of the natural world. From the ancient Greeks until the work of Carolus Linnaeus and other 18th century naturalists, the central concept tying together the various domains of natural history was the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being, which arranged minerals, vegetables, more primitive or “lower’’ forms of animals, and more advanced or “higher’’ forms of life on a linear scale of increasing “perfection’‘, culminating in our species.
I have another, more modern definition of the great chain of being; it’s a chain that links everything that moves in my garden.