CALL­ING

Mate­ship with Birds A clas­sic bird book urges us to dwell on the noun in the phrase ‘feathered friends’, writes Robert Adam­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

and writes about them as a hu­man be­ing.’’

Chisholm was op­posed to egg col­lect­ing and clashed with most of the pro­fes­sional or­nithol­o­gists of the time over the un­nec­es­sary shoot­ing and trap­ping of birds for ‘‘ sci­en­tific’’ spec­i­mens. He was known for his tena­cious abil­ity to ar­gue a point un­til he ex­hausted his ad­ver­sary. He was de­scribed as a quar­rel­some man; how­ever, his writ­ing be­came the bridge be­tween the ar­cane world of or­nithol­ogy and the read­ing pub­lic.

Mate­ship with Birds opens with a chap­ter ti­tled The Gifts of Au­gust, in which the brown fly­catcher, the Jacky Win­ter, sings loud enough to ‘‘ make the ap­proach of Perse­phone per­cep­ti­ble even to the dullard’’. This win­ter bird’s song be­comes ‘‘ ec­static’’ and strikes a chord in ‘‘ the breasts of those gems of the grass, the com­mu­nis­tic Red Robins, White-fronted BushChats, and Yel­low­tailed Tit-War­blers’’.

I was de­lighted to read the old names for th­ese birds again, and through­out the book we dis­cover lo­cal names for cer­tain birds along­side their Latin or­nitho­log­i­cal tags. The com­mon names sur­vive in con­ver­sa­tion al­though they have been ‘‘ cor­rected’’ by many com­mit­tees. In his day Chisholm sat on one such com­mit­tee, and al­though it des­ig­nated the name ‘‘ thorn­bill’’ for an in­dige­nous fam­ily of small in­sec­tiv­o­rous birds, he con­tin­ued to call them tit-war­blers in his ar­ti­cles.

One of the most charm­ing chap­ters is The Aris­toc­racy of the Crest, which re­minds me of Fran­cis Webb’s poem about black cock­a­toos, ‘‘ the artists of Heaven, the crested ones’’. Chisholm writes about the rar­ity of the crest, how it lends dig­nity and ‘‘ spright­li­ness’’ to the bird. He thinks all crested birds, young or old, in­di­cate by the man­ner of their dis­play that they are in­deed ‘‘ one of Na­ture’s anointed’’.

Chisholm writes of the ‘‘ con­scious dig­nity ex­hib­ited by the Cock­a­toos, and par­tic­u­larly by the pink (Cocka­le­rina) species, which ver­ily ap­pears to have an as­sured knowl­edge of the fact that it pos­sesses the most beau­ti­ful crest of any bird in Aus­tralia’’. And that those var­ie­gated feath­ers, like the golden crowns of hoopoes, are ‘‘ all too fa­tal in their beauty’’.

He noted in 1922 that the pink cock­a­too was rapidly be­com­ing one of the rarest of its kind: many thou­sands were trapped and sold as pets, and oth­ers were killed for their feath­ers.

Chisholm writes about the song of an­other bird abun­dant in his day and now rare, the crested bell­bird: As a boy in Vic­to­ria . . . fol­low­ing the com­mon­sense boy­ish prac­tice of al­low­ing a bird to choose its own name, we knew it as Dick-The-Devil . . . lis­ten­ing again in fancy to the par­tic­u­lar, liq­uid run of notes, it seems to me that the ju­ve­nile ear ren­dered them as near to hu­man speech as was pos­si­ble in the words, ‘‘ Dick, Dick-Dick, the Devil’’ — the whole phrase to be taken leisurely, with, on the last syl­la­ble, a liq­uid drop as that of a small stone splashing into a pool or a soft ‘‘ click­ing’’ of a hu­man tongue.

The fi­nal chap­ter, The Par­adise Parrot Tragedy, refers to John Gil­bert, a nat­u­ral­ist and taxi­der­mist, whom Chisholm de­scribes, in­ter­est­ingly, as a ‘‘ coad­ju­tor’’ of John Gould, the ‘‘ fa­ther of Aus­tralian or­nithol­ogy’’.

In 1839, while car­ry­ing out or­nitho­log­i­cal work on the Dar­ling Downs, Gil­bert shot a parrot of a species he had not pre­vi­ously seen. Gould re­ferred Gil­bert’s spec­i­mens to the genus Psepho­tus and, de­lighted with the beauty of the birds, gave them the spe­cific ti­tle of pul­cher­rimus. The fol­low­ing quote by Gould acts as a pre­lude to the ex­tinc­tion of the par­adise parrot: ‘‘ The grace­ful form of this Para­keet com­bined with the ex­treme bril­liancy of its plumage, ren­ders it one of the most lovely of the Psittaci­dae yet dis­cov­ered; and in what­ever light we re­gard it, whether as a beau­ti­ful or­na­ment to our cab­i­nets or a de­sir­able ad­di­tion to our aviaries, it is still an ob­ject of no or­di­nary in­ter­est.’’

Think­ing about Gould’s ob­ser­va­tion, Chisholm writes: ‘‘ Su­perla­tives hav­ing been wrung from a sea­soned sci­en­tist, who saw only life­less spec­i­mens of the ‘ most lovely’ bird, what was to be ex­pected from those per­sons for­tu­nate enough to know it in life?’’

Af­ter Gould’s notes there was noth­ing much writ­ten about the par­adise parrot un­til the 1980s. By that time large num­bers of Gould’s

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