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Anecdotes for birds

Life in the air

"The Orange-bellied Parrot, a small, rather sweet and colourful bird in the flesh, bulked larger on paper than in life. It was unavoidable: half the poor creature's head had been blown apart by the captain's shot and much of its body was matted in dried blood" Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish

Peter and Andrea Hylands

September 15, 2022

High on our hill in South Yarra, exposed and fragile, it is a continual anxiety watching our little family of Tawny Frogmouths. The heat and now the cold. The high winds, the breaking branches all around, part of the very messy nest collapses in the gale. Then the hail. The birds now all on a branch, the adult birds squashing the young between them, to protect the little birds from the wet and freezing wind.

Through drought and fires

The terrible droughts in Queensland and New South Wales and the intense fires of the last few days are driving the birdlife from these two states south to Victoria. In places where Australia’s dwindling waterbirds will be concentrated like never before. Breeding conditions have been dire, empty lakes and empty and dying rivers. In the forests and in the fires young birds have no hope at all.

If all this is not enough, in New South Wales the annual slaughter of waterbirds begins, hidden, unsupervised and generally unknown. Flying under the radar and unreported by the media, this activity accounts fort ens of thousands of waterbirds each year. These are the birds that are being killed on mass in New South Wales each year, Australian Shelduck or Mountain Duck, Australian Wood Duck or Maned Duck, Black Duck or Pacific Black Duck, Blue-winged Shoveler or Australasian Shoveler, Chestnut Teal, Grass Whistling Duck or Plumed Whistling Duck, Grey Teal, Hardhead or White-eyed Duck, Pink-eared Duck, Water Whistling Duck, Wandering Whistling Duck or Whistling or Wandering Tree Duck. Other bird species do and will get caught in the slaughter, the killing including Kangaroos and Wallabies if they are present.

From the New South Wales Government

“To help growers protect their crops I encourage them to take advantage of the DPI Streamlined Licensing System by ticking the opt-in box on their rice seed order form to obtain a Native Game Bird Management Licence and a quota allocation”.

The tension also mounts across Australia’s State of Victoria, its government no friend to the natural world or birds come to that, as we all wait to hear about the announcements of the next and horrendous duck shooting season. We brace ourselves for the excuses and endless constructs, there are lots of birds, its humane, its great for the family, the killing is well managed and lawful, and on it goes. So we fine the people who care about the precious and dwindling birdlife and we block the prosecutions of those committing the most horrendous acts of cruelty. The public endangered and the police endangered by it all. The cost to the taxpayer is vast.

Ramsar denied

Victoria is not the place to be if you happen to be a bird, between 2009 and 2018, 73 per cent of species subject to ‘control’ in Victoria were bird species with a total of 397,549 birds, of which 182,721 or 45 percent were from a range of parrot species.

We also need to remember that Authorities To Control Wildlife (ATCWs) are not the only way animals in Victoria die, so we can add another 4 million dead water birds (I am being modest in my calculations) in the last ten years to the tally in Victoria because of duck shooting in the state. So all up, that is around 4.5 million birds, killed for little purpose, in Victoria in the last ten years.

Who cares about all those international bird agreements? The Victorian Government certainly does not.

Black Swan

Black Swan

Black Swans have been acclimatised and have bred successfully outside captivity in several European countries.

In England (where they were first imported from Australia in1791) at Carshalton in Surrey as early as 1851 and at Bicton in Devon in the following decade. Since 1902 they have nested intermittently on the Thames, mostly in the vicinity of London and under the nominal tutelage of the Worshipful Company of Vintners, who acquired them from Western Australia in exchange for Mute Swans.


Emu not good enough?

The first pair of Ostriches were despatched to Australia (Victoria) from Paris in 1862.

One died on the voyage.

A second consignment of four that followed in 1869 was more successful. The birds were safely landed in Melbourne and transferred to their importer, Sir Samuel Wilson, a noted Australian pastoralist, to his estate at Longerenong in the Wimmera district.……These vicissitudes, combined with a climate that was clearly too wet and predation of the young by the native marsupial cat forced Wilson in 1874 to send his surviving stock inland to a station at Murray Downs near Swan Hill on the New South Wales side of the border.

Animal watching

As a frequent visitor to London Zoo in the 1950s I can remember seeing Desmond Morris working on the television series Zoo Time. I was intensely interested in animals and whatever we might think about zoos, I have mixed feelings, modern zoos are often the last place of refuge for too many animals. What I do know is that zoos must always be a place of education, intelligence and conservation, a place in which the animals come first and the general public come second. Here are some of Desmond’s observations from his book Animal Watching.

Ducks and geese rely on their young to follow them when they move about. They are ill equipped for transporting their young in any other way. But the ducklings and goslings are extremely attentive and follow closely behind the parent in an orderly line.

Some birds, such as Flamingos, are vulnerable at night and frequently sleep with one eye open. It is claimed that such birds allow one hemisphere of their brains to sleep at a time, changing the open, alert eye and the alert hemisphere from time to time during the period of slumber. They can then awake refreshed, having switched off their brains without ever once being completely unwary.

Our primary concern should be to enjoy animals for their sake and not for our own. In the past we have all too often used our knowledge to exploit them rather to celebrate them. The time has come to change that, and the better we become at animal watching, pure and simple, the easier this will be.

Natural selection

And now to Charles Darwin in New South Wales.

A few years since this country abounded with wild animals, but now the Emu is banished to a long distance, and the Kangaroo has become scarce, to both the English Greyhound has been highly destructive.

Charles Darwin, Natural History Museum

"It may not be long before these animals are altogether exterminated, but their doom is fixed".

Peter at Nettlecombe

And so to England

Windsor is not far from the fringe of Greater London and housing development presses insistently on the open land. Much of the area is now commuter country. Fields and rural lanes, with their hawthorn hedges have been replaced by neatly laid out housing estates. Coppices with their undergrowth have been decimated and no longer provide sanctuary for Finches, Thrushes and Warblers. The spring cawing of Rooks is less in volume. The Nightingale, which could once be heard within Windsor, has now retreated, thought it may still frequent some of the woodlands on the outskirts of town.

Hesperornis skeleton drawn by Peter Hylands, note teeth

Hesperornis, an ancient waterbird

The most striking feature of Hesperornis was its beak, the lower and upper jaws being equipped with true teeth, fixed in a common grove.The total number of teeth was 96. Although Hesperornis was a typical bird, the presence of teeth in its jaws was obviously a heritage from its reptile ancestors. The teeth however were not the only sign. Casts of the cranial cavity show the brain also had reptile features. Hesperornis (Cretaceous) looked something like the Great Northern Diver and measured five feet in length. The bird was incapable of flight, clumsy on land but an excellent swimmer, hunting the fish, which made up its diet.

Shades of the Soviet Union

In the mid 1990s Paul Keating’s Government ask me if I would be prepared to become a mentor on behalf of Australia for business people and professionals to establish links (and to help) entrepreneurs in those countries in the former Soviet Union adjusting to the immense changes of the previous few years. It was a good idea and Andrea and I enjoyed the journey, at least some of those in the program visiting and staying with us in our wildlife property in Central Victoria.

Something strange has happened to Australia since those more positive days. The words “when it does rain you’re going to make a quid” endlessly repeated on radio this weekend and as New South Wales and Queensland burn, appears to be the only strategy Australia’s current Government in Canberra has to deal with Australia’s future and the rather pressing issues of climate change.

I begin to see similarities in the way people are treated, those who are not mates of these governments that is (which I suspect is increasingly more and more of us), to the way people were dealt with in the USSR. It may be a small beginning, of shouting and not listening, but nonetheless troubling. We have a great deal of first hand and very costly experience of it.

Andrea outside the Victorian Parliament
Andrea outside the Victorian Parliament prior to be directed to the Environment Minister's office

It was so that we travelled down from Tokyo in 2018 to attend the opening of that year’s duck shooting season. We invited the Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio, along with her senior staff at the department of environment to attend the opening mass killing event in Victoria with us. All of these people had been busy promoting or defending the benefits of this horrific slaughter. None came of course, but it was the process of delivering the invitation that was rather interesting and measure of how things are.

When we arrived outside of the office building where these individuals work, high up and completely sealed off from the natural world in Australia, I tried to take a photo of Andrea while she was holding Lily’s invitation. Andrea was standing on a public pavement in the street outside the building. It was a close up image of Andrea with the invite with a panel of the government building in the background – nothing to see.

I was immediately confronted by a rather large and scruffily dressed woman clutching a takeaway coffee. No identification. You can’t take photos – aggressive and rude. So we come to a point where it is no longer possible for two people in their late 60s to take photos of each other on a public street in Melbourne. Seems very Soviet to me.

And it was all because we liked birds.

End game

As we reflect on Australia’s lack of intelligence and intellectual inquiry when it comes to its extraordinary wildlife, including birdlife, what we know is increasingly grim. The cruelty exacted on a vast number of species native to Australia, the endless support and misleading spin by governments across the country, all says we must come to the conclusion that what goes on needs to change, and fast.

Currently the situation is heading in the opposite direction with more and more brazen killing and cruelty and significantly increased activity, killing a vast array of animals and species.

Our home of a working lifetime

Andrea and I were deeply shocked to find that our long held conservation property in Victoria, which we were forced from, is now in the centre of a Kangaroo shooting zone, introduced just last month. The slide into ignorance and yet more violence is remarkable, particularly as it is underpinned by the usual lies and deceits that we know so well. 

I think we must hand the last word to duck man Laurie Levy, a persistent warrior in the fight for justice for Australian animals, including birds of course.

"We are familiar with shooters’ claims that hunting takes them into the bush, sometimes in family groups, and improves their health. However, it’s possible to go into the bush, get some exercise, talk to people, and not kill anything. That approach also leaves the wildlife intact for the benefit and health of others who follow. Shooters, like the rest of the community, experience mental health challenges, and this does not mix well with guns. It is inappropriate to justify shooting wildlife on the grounds that it is good for health".