“Donny, there’s twitching within,” said Richard Flanagan when he signed a copy of his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North during its launch a few years back.
Sure enough, when I read the Booker Prize-winning work, I found the central character Dorrigo Evans doing a spot of birdwatching in the Midlands where the early part of the novel is set.
As Flanagan wrote, Dorrigo “would smell damp bark and drying leaves and watch the clans of green and red musk lorikeets chortling far above. He would drink in the birdsong of the wrens and the honeyeaters.“
After reading the novel I took a journey of my own along the stretch of the Midland Highway featured in the book, from Cleveland to the Fingal Valley turn-off, a trip which indeed went back in time with fairy-wrens scurrying across the road and wedge-tailed eagles soaring overhead.
The spell Flanagan cast to describe the bucolic Midlands of yesteryear came to mind recently when I read a disturbing report on the present state of the region’s birdlife. It appears the birdsong of the early 20th century which Flanagan recalls has largely fallen silent.
A combination of land-clearance and intensive agriculture are largely responsible. These changes are detailed in a study by the School of Natural Sciences, University of Tasmania, published by the Royal Society earlier this year.
The report reveals incremental change to the landscape of the Midlands has brought threats to the smaller songbirds. From the 1990s large swathes of woodland were cleared after a crash in wool prices and farmers began to switch to crops.
In more recent years, irrigation and the infrastructure that accompanies it have demanded paddocks of greater size, reducing the cover of trees, including dead ones which provide nest hollows for many bird species.
The Utas researchers led by ecologist Dr Glen Bain surveyed 72 sites stretching from Gretna in the south to Longford in the north, and from the Eastern to the Western Tiers. Comparing many of these sites to those studied in the 1990s, the researchers found smaller birds like superb fairy-wrens had been displaced by more aggressive noisy miners and starlings, species which tended to dominate the fragmented woodland.
Dr Bain used the common and popular fairy-wren as a model, particularly to measure levels of stress this and other species might be experiencing. The researchers found wrens inhabiting small patches of woodland on farms had stress levels nearly twice as high as those in nature reserves. Prolonged stress can affect the ability to reproduce
The researchers are now hoping their findings will inspire conservation projects in which farmers receive financial incentives to maintain and enhance native grasses and woodlands. These will give greater shelter to small birds, ensuring future generations of Midlands residents can delight in their song as Dorrigo Evans did.