It’s been a bumper summer for the armchair bird-watcher, the Ashes bringing a new flock of species to the television screen.
A magpie-lark at the MCG on Boxing Day was a stand-out, along with a magpie at the Adelaide Oval, but it was equally magical to see welcome swallows swooping and flitting across the Sydney Cricket Ground during the last few days of the cricket series.
Swallows – like the ubiquitous silver gulls – are not a rare sight on Australian cricket grounds but it is this species more than any other that cements the emotional passion I have for the summer game, and fuels a conflict of loyalties I always feel when the Poms and Aussies do battle on the pitch.
I’m among the quarter of the Australian population born overseas – in my case not too far from the Oval cricket ground in London – but as an Australian citizen I like to think of myself as an ocker Aussie through and through. But although I might cheer for Australia in the Olympics or soccer World Cup I carry too much baggy blue baggage to turn my back on the Pommie cricketers.
More often than not – especially in Australia – my support for England has been very painful and at such times, as with the present Ashes series, the birds have relieved the suffering. Along with the magpie-lark during the Ashes whitewash there was a butcherbird in Perth and a little raven in Adelaide. And although I didn’t see anything of note from Brisbane – save for a passing flock of fast-flying rainbow lorikeets – I’m sure I heard a familiar summer song of the Brisbane suburbs, the far-carrying “cooee” cry of the eastern coel, a cuckoo visiting from Papua New Guinea which is also called the “rainbird” in Queensland because it usually heralds a downpour.
Swooping swallows and cricket ovals; it is an enduring memory of playing cricket during my childhood and later reporting on the sport during my first job as a reporter in the southern English town of Woking.
It is this connection between birds and man, in this case highlighted by cricket, that best underlines the philosophy of the “On the Wing” column, which marks its 13th anniversary in the pages of this newspaper this month.
The column’s about our connection with birds in our everyday city lives, as our contact point with the wider world of nature. We all have a bird story to tell, whether we like birds or not, whether swallows have distracted a batsman at the crease, or a blackbird has scattered leaf litter over a neatly manicured lawn.
I might be having a little fun when I draw up my television sport checklist – European magpies on Liverpool’s Anfield soccer pitch last week was my latest sighting beyond cricket – but some science can be applied to this apparent eccentricity, or madness as my wife puts it.
The birds that can be seen on or flying over cricket grounds represent the species that have learned to live in man’s world, and they can include species that have been introduced to areas far from their natural homes. Blackbirds at Bellerive and Indian mynas at the MCG are a case in point.
There are also a few native birds adapting to cities in ever greater numbers. These tend to dominate and force out other shyer species, taking vital food resources and nesting sites. Among these are the rainbow lorikeets that have taken over eastern cities and another bird I have heard while viewing cricket at the Sydney cricket ground, the pied currawong.
It’s not to say all birds seen on cricket pitches pose a threat to shyer birds that need more of a variety of habitat than is usually provided in the man-made world, whether it be city or farm.
At my beloved Kennington Oval, where my dad saw Donald Bradman out for a rare duck after naming his son after the Australian master, I have had my greatest sport-related bird-watching moment, live and not seen on the television screen. That was the sight of a kestrel hunting on the terraces.
And there are always the swallows, whether they be European ones in Britain or the welcome swallows I saw at the Blundstone Oval when the English tourists played there at the start of summer.