The “punk bird” is on the march across Australia and it is not improbable that some day it might bring its anarchy to Tasmania.
You have to see the “punk bird” and been witness to the punk revolution in Britain in the 1980s to realise how apt the description of the species is.
This is a bird with a cocky waddle, with wings that whistle when it flies at high speed and a spiky hair-do. We are talking here of the crested pigeon which in the past half century, and particularly since the ’80s punk invasion, has taken our mainland cities by storm.
I’ve always viewed crested pigeons as part of the exciting mix of new birds when I have travelled interstate in the past and didn’t release they were a relatively recent addition to suburbia until I read an article about their spread in Australian Birdlife magazine.
So on a recent trip to Victoria I decided to seek them out. I didn’t have to go far, viewing a party on a grass embankment at Sunbury railway station on the outskirts of Melbourne.
Close-up, the pigeons are really a challenge to the eye, and any sense of harmony of colour and form. There’s that spiky black crest for a start, and a bright red eye would betray a punk’s night of excess on alcohol or banned substances. The birds are largely light grey with a subtle pink wash. There are also brown hues with a kaleidoscope of colours on the intricately patterned wings.
The crested pigeons are about the size of their feral, European cousins in cities, and it is only in recent years, perhaps because they have become so ubiquitous in the suburbs, that they have drawn the punk appellation.
The father of Australian ornithology John Gould saw them in a different light when he tracked them down in the mid-1800s.
“The chasteness of its colouring, the extreme elegance of its form, and the graceful crest which flows backwards from its occipital tend to render this pigeon one of the most lovely of its tribe inhabiting Australia, and in fact I consider it not surpassed in beauty by any other from any part of the world.”
There are only two species of pigeon naturally occurring in Tasmania – the common and brush bronze-wing pigeons – and these combine a subtle restrained beauty, with the only flash of colour being their iridescent wing panels. Mainland pigeons appear far more colourful and, in the crested pigeon’s case, it is that long crest that makes them stand out, giving them a comical appearance.
In Gould’s time the crested pigeon was considered a desert species, inhabiting the dry centre of the continent. In a hundreds years from the 1880s it spread to the Queensland and South Australian coast and in the last 30 years had reached both Sydney and Melbourne.
The pigeon appears to move into new areas at the time of droughts, exploiting environments favouring a dry country. Some suggest climate change – creating drier conditions – is responsible for its spread but others take a more sober and cautious view. They point out that the march of agriculture and the clearing of forests in the past 100 years has also created environments of open rangelands that favour the ground-feeding pigeons.
From being a relatively rare bird of the interior, the crested pigeons is now classified as one of these few species that can adapt and prosper in man’s world, many of these proving a problem in the suburbs where they are forcing out more specialist birds and reducing species diversity.
These include introduced species, in Melbourne’s case the notorious common or Indian myna. The myna might be the Johnny Rotten of birds, but let’s hope that the crested pigeon is never viewed as the Sid Vicious of the bird world.