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Australian Birdlife on our farm

Updated: Jul 11

Here is a chapter that didn’t make it into the book The Redgens of Redford

There were lots of birds living around our house. The ones I think of first, are the black ones.

Dozens of crows lived around the dairy. They mainly congregated around the pig sties, feeding on the sun-curdled milk remaining in the drums, or any milk still in the troughs, having been be overlooked by the pigs. Any spilled grain scattered from the troughs, made of hollowed lengths of gum-logs, was also theirs. At any time of day, the dead trees surrounding the pigsties were festooned with black raucous crows, like some strange rotting fruit.

There were black and white birds as well. Butcher birds were not so common around the house, though I saw lots of them around the school. We were told they got their name from their habit of hanging small prey animals — lizards and birds — on a sharp twig, as a butcher hangs a side of meat.

Magpies also spent time in the big gums shading the drinking troughs which held water for the cattle. Sometimes they prospected near the house for scraps of dog or cat meat. There was usually a family of peewees — also called mudlarks — with a mud nest somewhere close by, and you’d see them prospecting for insects in the grass under the clothes line.

There were always willy-wagtails about the place, fluttering from fence-post to tree-branch, from house roof to tank stand, always active as they sought for insects. On moonlight nights, I’d hear them calling from the garden. They built nests in low bushes, and under garden archways. One pair built on a rafter inside the washhouse, just centimeters above our heads. The adults sat doggedly on their eggs, watching Mum as she bent over the tubs, until they hatched their babies successfully. They made the cats’ lives a misery, dive bombing them as they sat on the lawn, chasing them into the house, shouting a warning when they saw a cat trying to stalk mice or small birds. The cats detested them. I never saw a willy caught by anything. They are very widespread in Australia.

The ‘twelve apostle’ birds — also known as ‘happy families’— were more of a slate-grey colour. I never saw one on its own, they were always in groups, usually of more than ten. They were dreadfully noisy as they hunted among the grasses for insects and seeds, or scrabbled among the branches.

A silver-grey bird was the noisy miner … commonly known as ‘leather head’ for the bald patch on their heads. This was our resident honey-eater, and was especially common when the silky-oak trees were flowering. Those flowers also attracted the colourful lorikeets, as too did the pink berries of the pepperina tree. Birds were also attracted by the shiny black ‘Christmas beetles’ appearing in the silky oaks in summer.

Superb blue wrens lived in the gardens. The gorgeous males, each with a harem of females and immature males, would dance on the lawn or through the holes in the wire netting fences, rapid continuous flicks of their rampant tails, showing off their metallic blue shirt-fronts. Their dull grey females and offspring would dance just as beautifully, but without the dazzling shirts, were barely noticeable among the grass stems. They were much safer thus camouflaged.

Those were our resident birds, but there were many others we saw less often. I remember a single emu which hung around the yards for several days. It had no fear of us, and we suspected it was an escaped pet. Its wild relatives often wandered through the back paddocks of the farm. Several pairs of brolgas visited the swamp between the house and the creek, so we heard their deep trumpeting calls. Once a black and white bird we called a Jabiru visited. (Its new name is the black-necked stork.)

Pelicans and ibis visited when the billabongs and swamps were full of water. Hot weather produced thermals, broad spirals of rising warm air. Hundreds of pelicans and ibis flew into the spirals from kilometers around. Once in, they glided up the spiral, carried on the rising air, defying gravity. Sometimes they flapped their wings lazily to catch up with a friend. They rode the thermals until single birds shrank to tiny spots in the sky, and at last were lost to view. Where did they go then?

There were owls which called at night. I once found one sitting on a fence post when I closed a gate late at night. I don’t know who got the biggest fright, him or me. But he flew off on silent wings, with only a single protesting ‘whoo’. His relatives, a family of tawny frogmouths, lived in a clump of trees near the swamp. If you stood underneath, you might, if you looked very hard, identify a broken branch whose eyes followed you as you moved around.

A satin bower-bird sometimes visited the garden. He stole the Ricketts Blue bags from the laundry trolley to decorate his bower. During summer, we occasionally saw ‘dollar’ birds visiting from the tropics. They had round pale circles under each wing. Late in summer, we sometimes heard the ‘storm bird’ — the channel-billed cuckoo — in the orchard at night. He spent the day sheltering in the orange trees, reluctant to move unless I shook the branches. Even then, he’d only fly into the next tree. His cousin, the pallid cuckoo, called his plaintive trill of rising notes, whenever I ventured a few hundred meters away from the house. Hearing a cuckoo’s call makes me homesick today.

There were 2 types of pigeons, bronze-wings, and topknots, but I saw them less often. And I would hear the kookaburras in the back paddocks. Pink and grey galahs sometimes came to the house, and I could watch them playing, as they slid down the sloping wires anchoring the clothes-line posts. But I always heard their screeches before I saw them. And there were wood ducks near the creek. Max once trapped a family of ducklings walking near the water. They lived with the chooks until their feathers grew, and they flew away into the bush.

I know there were more types of Australian birdlife on our farm, but because I saw them infrequently, their names escape my memory now.

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