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