In Praise of Parrots.

“One cannot be uncheered with a balloon” a rather famous bear once said. And while this is clearly true - only the deeply, resistantly, grumpy can remain uncheered by a balloon - it could also be said “One cannot be uncheered by parrots”.

The simple fact of the matter is that I like parrots. However, none of the parrots that I have seen have passed on their opinions of me. This seems a familiar, distant adoration, the reawakening of a teenage relationship, where you stare at the subject of your affection, but that source is blissfully unaware of your thoughts. And would probably be scornful in dismissal if it was aware. But such thoughts are of little consequence here. Parrots will brighten your day, but I doubt they will break your heart.

Twice over the last week I have found flocks of parrots around my home. Their calls, silver and weird, have pulled me from the house to watch them, high in the trees, feeding, calling, being there for no purpose but their own.

At first glance parrots seem like a evolutionary luxury - plumage run riot, with all shades from largely black to mostly white and every hue in between. But this is not the case. To steal a line from elsewhere, if there really was a creator with a plan, she must have dropped the acid before she designed the parrots, not after.

Parrots, with their muscular frames and apparent personalities are such fun to watch. You can feel the pull of anthropomorphism here, and while generally to be resisted, here it is almost impossible to avoid superimposing our values on their behaviour. The muscular rolling walk on the ground and the acrobatics in the trees are irresistible. As they wander (see, they don’t just walk, they wander) over to a new object you can almost hear them say “wha’s going on ‘ere then?”. If animators had really paid much attention to the world around them, our screens would not have just been populated with talking cats, dogs and mice.

A few days ago I was pulled from the house by the strange calls of Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoos. These are a large bird by any measure, and they are becoming increasingly common in suburban Melbourne. Not that many years ago flocks of these birds would have caused some excitement, or at least a few phone calls. Now such sightings are much more common. Have these birds been displaced from elsewhere, forced into the outer edges of town, or have these suburbs changed and the birds moved in? Yellow Tails are not the only birds that have moved in during the last few years.

As is common with Yellow Tails, this flock had descended on a pine tree, not native, but still a food source. And as is common with Yellow Tails, this flock was having a good go at tearing the tree to shreds. A rain of twigs, some even flirting with being branches, fall from the tree. The staccato thud of pine cones falling to Earth punctuate the conversations in the tree tops. Yellow Tails are armed with a beak powerful enough to slice through the stem of the cone and then shred the cone itself, seeking its hidden seeds. The butchered cones lie scattered under the trees looking similar to the cones chewed by squirrels. Looking into the high tree tops it was difficult to tell how many birds were there. Four or five I thought, and then ten broke from the canopy and drifted away on pulsing wings. A relaxed buoyant flight on long wings. Calling into the distance.

Yesterday the gum tree in my garden was decorated with Rainbow Lorikeets, another bird that has moved into the suburbs over the last 20 years or so. Two things drew my attention to the tree - the constant fall of gum flowers, like a tree with very bad dandruff, and the constant tree top chatter of the birds. Gum Tree flowers are a movable feast, one day here, the next day elsewhere. The flocks of Lorikeets are the same. Today my tree has fallen quiet. The birds that dashed though the sky have moved on to pastures new. The feast has moved on and so have the birds. Through the magnifying eye of a telescope the birds are at their best, but surprisingly hard to find for such a colourful beast. The colours do not seem set for camouflage, but they break up the bird and the raucous colours - rainbows indeed - hide the birds. Parrot acrobatics are great to watch - my favourite being the two footed slide down a bare branch. Great to watch and impossible (for me) to emulate.

I often encounter parrots on the way to work. In my last job I would often see Sulphur Crested Cockatoos sitting on the road bridge over the freeway. Their crests would expand like a yellow washing up glove over their heads, and they often lined up in photogenic groups, mocking the traffic as it passed. As ever, I would be cheered by the sight of these birds, but it would not last. The cheer would drain away, often before the end of the bridge, always by the car park. Water from sponge, sand through my fingers. How did it come to this………

Today I walked to work and saw an Australian King Parrot - not a rare bird, but one you don’t see that often in this part of town. It circled calling - that’s why I noticed it - and landed in a tree top. Throwing its single noted call to whoever was listening - and it seem just to be me. The thought of that bird did not drain away in the passing of the next few minutes. Why did it take so long to come to this………….

Parrots take on a roll call of interest - Gang Gang Cockatoos, with their red heads and creaking gate call - Rosellas, shape shifters in the way their colours change as they grow, Galahs, the bird that has become an affectionate term of abuse, and the nectar sipping rosellas and lorikeets. Splendid birds each one.

Putting the joke of a drug addled creator, generating bright parrots from dull clay, to one side, we return to the starting question; why the colours? why are parrots so routinely bright?

In themes that would delight the producers of commercial TV current theories revolve around sex and advertising. However, there is much work to be done in this area.

Is colour a form of honest advertising - where only healthy individuals can maintain the flamboyant and expensive colours? If this is the case the colours are a marker of genetic fitness, they say “Hey, look at me - if I can pull off this plumage display I really must be top of the heap”. This contrasts nicely with the human equivalent - The Ferrari, which say “Hey, look at me - if I can pull off the ownership of this, I must be really, deeply, in debt!”

Of course honest advertising can be corrupted - if a bird was able to produce bright colours on the cheap (ha, ha!) then it would seem fit, but it may not be. It may look like the top of the heap, but it could be a cellar dweller.

If each case - honest or fraudulent - it relates to female mate selection - a realisation destined to depress most teenage boys, parrot or human.

Whatever the relationships to sex or environment that produces the colours in parrots, one thing can be sure. Understanding it will not make them any the less attractive or interesting to me, far from it.

As this day declines and the faint call of the birds can still be heard in the failing light I am glad to be surrounded by birds, advertising their wares, getting ready for the night.


Islands.

I visited an island this weekend. Not a large island. Not an impressive island. Held in the muddy waters of the Yarra, flanked on one side by the freeway and the other by school boatsheds. The drone of engines on one side and the strain of muscles on the other.

It is reached by a very short journey on a flat bottomed punt with an engine of seemingly unnecessary size and power. For a place surrounded with water it was surprisingly dry, with dusty paths, stressed plants and many weeds. There are barbeques and at one end an art gallery. This shows we are not on any regulation island.

Both islands and rivers bring easy life references, one a clear destination, the other a journey. Sitting in the Yarra the island is a surrounded place in a linear feature, a dot within a line.

While noisy miners live up to their name in the bushes and magpies follow you, begging for food, this is not really a place to visit for the wildlife. This is place you visit for the abstraction of sculpture, rather than the company of nature.

Why do people like particular landscapes? Why do people like particular sculptures? Shape? Form? Texture? Some message that only they can read? Some association of memory? Whatever the reasons, some things work and some things don’t. Herring Island, my speck in the Yarra, contains sculptures - some which work for me, some which don’t.

The head of the island has become a boat - lined with rough cut granite slabs and a captain’s seat. A splendid place to look downriver to the city of Melbourne. But here the boat stays still and the water moves past, an anchored boat. All movement is relative to something, and here the waters flow and the island is still. You can stand at the head of your boat, curse the White Whale of progress should you wish, have your Ahab moment if you are inclined. But you will stay still and the water will move. If this sculpture is about anything, it seems to me to be about the necessity of movement. We can stand and watch, or we can become involved. It’s a binary choice. Inaction seems out of the question. On an island turning to dust, in a river choking in drought, a choice seems to be demanded of you. I wonder if that is what it is really about?

Weaving from the river’s edge to the top of the island is Falling Fence. A plastic flow of stakes emerging from the ground like the bones of a spine - like a huge fish frame buried in the land. From the water of the river to the dust of the top it winds along its own path. Although the name may be purely descriptive, it does look like a falling fence after all, the route of the fence seems important. From river to dust. Falling fences are also a symbol of decay - farmland “tumbles down” to woodland, as if one is higher than the other. As if the falling fences are a symbol of decay on all fronts. No matter that the fallen farm land is as rich in wildlife as the farm itself was poor. Many places have old farmland that has been taken back by the wild. For a while it was even encouraged - set aside it was called - and it sought to take land out of production. In many places - the woodlands of New England, the windy space of Dartmoor, the vast wheat belts of Western Australia - you can find the fallen fences of farms long gone, some made of wood, some of stone, some of piled earth. Some fell in recent memory, some fell in the times of iron or bronze tools and watchful eyes on the encroaching Roman Legions. Fallen fences speak of change.

In the middle of the island is a valley, maybe a dell. Although it is only a few feet deep it is as significant as a glacial slice through a different landscape. The island is small and really does not have scale, so small things are important. In a larger scale valley you can have an “over there” or a “hidden”, but in a landscape measured in feet rather than miles, such things are not possible. The best you can hope for is to place a thing where it may remain masked for a few meters. Where it can be hidden in some directions, but is open in others.

In this dell there are two sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. One sits by the path and the other is shielded by trees. Goldsworthy makes things of Wood and Stone, he makes Walls and Enclosures. Many of his works are temporary, which exist in the long term only in photographs. These are different.

The first sculpture shows off a familiar shape - a pine cone. A round shape with a narrow base and a point built from flat sections of rock. Gravity holds this together, no cement here. For a shape drawn from a northern tree, the pine cone looks oddly natural here in the southern hemisphere. I have seen these cones made from stone and scrap steel, and in each case they fitted into the landscape, hand in glove. Here it was the same.

Built into a soil wall the second sculpture was a hole in a wall. And within the wall there was a large stone. This seemed to be appropriate to an island in a river. The wall, like a river, and the stone like an island. My children were drawn to sit on this island within a river of stone. I’m not sure this is actually what they are supposed to do - but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Islands seem important. I have lived and visited them over the years. A small island off the south west coast corner of Ireland. One of a line of three, far Fastnet, with its lighthouse and it yacht race. Clear Island, much closer, with its Bird Observatory and its Shearwaters. Then, just off the coast, Sherkin Island, across the water from Baltimore. These were small islands, intimate islands.

Some islands were simply cartographers’ specks, so tiny you could miss them in a mist. Islands on lakes, tucked under the shores, but each with a story to tell and a place of adventure for young kids in canoes.

When you visit an island you step into a small, defined world. Here understanding is more likely because of the scale of the world you have entered. Here you can find a kind of intellectual solitude that seems hard to find on the mainland.

No man is an island, but we should all visit them.