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Small Things: On birds and why I love them

Swooping right on birds.

Art by Amelia Mertha

Superb fairy wrens made their springtime nest in our orange tree this year. Blue flashes through our lounge-room window when the male wren soaks and shimmies in the bird bath right outside. Mum sends me outside to shoo away a predatory Pied currawong that has sent the smaller birds – the wrens, finches and a Willy Wag-tail – into a panic. “They’ve taken eggs before,” she warns. Brown and gangly, I make a good scarecrow. 

Earlier in the year, we were visited several times by two adult Magpies. One had a deformed, but still functional, foot – I called her Ajani. The other, Zoya, liked to announce their arrival through chortled song, stretching neck and beak to the light dappled leaves of our blueberry ash tree. We fed both of them small amounts of cheese and fruit. This gesture seemed to pay off when, on their fourth or fifth visit, they brought their juvenile with them. Magpies are generally quite curious, and very intelligent, but juveniles also tend to be more trusting of humans. When I sat in the middle of the yard, it hopped into my lap. I was softened and named it Penguin. It waddled quickly around the yard, inspecting every corner like a small, inquisitive child assembling treasure. 

On the website magpiealert.com, anyone can add a record to the map of magpie swoops across Australia throughout the year. Swoops that resulted in an injury are marked by a red icon, the rest are road-sign yellow. Users can add their own comments about the nature of the swoop too. A recent recount from North Parramatta notes, “swooped 4 times, very gentle taps on the top of helmet.” Another person, in Earlwood, was “swooped and injured while running.” In early September, a magpie in Bella Vista was shot dead by The Hills Shire Council after local residents lodged over 40 complaints about its exceptionally aggressive, territorial behaviour along Old Windsor Road. One person was reported to have had a heart attack, mid-magpie attack. Magpies mate for life, and somewhere in Greater Western Sydney, a magpie is surely wondering where its mate went. What now remains of the “Windsor Road Monster” is just a cluster of records on magpiealert.com that mark where it once called home. 

While bird watching (also known as ‘twitching,’ or ‘birding’) is traditionally an analogue practice, and hobbyists are generally white and middle-to-upper-class, my experience of the digital archiving of birds and bird activity is strangely similar to, if not intertwined, with some of the queer and so-called-radical digital spaces I have access to.

@femmebirds is a US-based Instagram account that declares in its bio that it is “anti-racist, trans/gnc celebratory, fat liberationist and intersectional feminist.” High definition photographs of gorgeously plumaged birds follow relatable, edifying captions. It is certainly a neat intersection of some of my interests. Some posts celebrate a femme icon or make a cheeky reference to romantic endeavours, others affirm fashion choices or the account’s left-wing politics (pun intended). Beneath a row of six puff-chested green bee eaters, the captain stands in particular solidarity with trans women in the US. They await a Supreme Court’s ruling over whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) protects employees from discrimination based on sex and/or sexual orientation. 

In an older @femmebirds post, the caption “Yes, yellow eyeshadow is in this year, Becky. And fuck you, no, I did not overdo it,” refers to the yellow Pulcinella face of the masked plover in the accompanying photo. Masked plovers have notoriously protective and gutsy parenting techniques. This is important when you’re a bird that evolved to lay eggs within anxious proximity to human foot traffic on the ground. A plover chick, about the size of an apple, once played dead right in front of me. Hearing its parents’ rapidfire kikiki-ing, the chick knew exactly what to do – close its eyes and collapse on the spot – barely a day into its life. Later, I watched it bounce up a grassy knoll behind the adults, knowing it was safe.

There is a @butchbirds account too. For those playing along, the Emu and Macaroni pengiun are both, apparently, categorically butch while the Australian Pelican is femme. The jury may still be out on the ibis. Though, neither @butchbirds or @femmebirds pretend that their two categories have any hard and fast rules when it comes to birds. The brilliance of these two accounts, in this era of memes, memos and mood-boards, is their archive of an unabashed beauty of small things.

Any account I make about ‘small things’ can be owed to Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things. Roy’s novel operates within an economy of magical realism and it is the laws of nature – of lush utopias and in-between states – that manifest as magical realism’s political language.  Not all birds are small, I concede, but, unless one really pays attention, they take up a small part of the quotidian. How many pigeons, seagulls, ibises or magpies are really being noticed when they aren’t shitting on us, swooping, or eating our trash?

The narrative in The God of Small Things does not entertain extraordinariness or sublimity, nothing and no one is larger than life but small witching hours, small lives, can “affect the outcome of whole lifetimes … [l]ittle events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning.” A witching hour feels like waking up from a mid-afternoon fever nap to the rare sight of a goshawk outside. It feels like the familiar call of a masked plover flying overhead late at night standing in an inner Sydney street that yawns into an unfamiliar darkness. 

Digital archiving is a way of tending to my own queer feelings; I screenshot messages from lovers and crushes, map date spots, make playlists on Spotify. I have tried to do the same with bird encounters – record bird sounds, bookmark links detailing unfamiliar species. I once watched a documentary about the great hornbill, the state bird of Kerala (in which The God of Small Things is set). The hornbill has a horned structure on its bill called a casque, which I found so impressive that I was compelled to rank my favourite birds in my notes app. The hornbill came in at number 7, the kookaburra in first place. Somewhere else in my notes app, I have typed “3:22am – birds” during an acid trip I took on a mild Boston night. 

To me, the archival space of Magpie Alert is not entirely dissimilar from the mapped structure of a Canadian-based website called Queering the Map. Users pin locations on a Google-sourced global map (like Magpie Alert) then submit “queer moments” attached to that specific location. The ephemeral nature of some queer acts remind me of the brief swoop of a bird. For a single moment, another creature sees you and only you. The body is self-aware, triumph or danger imminent. 

In The God of Small Things, Roy writes, “Ammu said that human beings were creatures of habit, and it was amazing the kind of things they could get used to.” In the same way I might see a dog on the street and exclaim, “dog!”, once I developed an interest in birds, it became a habit to acknowledge their presence. Just ask my girlfriend, who has spent enough time with me waxing lyrical about birds to say she now thinks of me when she sees a magpie. And why should we overlook the small things, why not pay attention to the ecosystems around us? The climate is changing, you can hear the droughts and floods in birdsong too. 

This week, I read online that birds can see colours on the ultraviolet spectrum that our trichromat vision cannot. Birds know that they shimmer in many more colours than humans have the language and capacity to name, or to even imagine. Birds and love have that in common. And maybe we could say the same about each other. In each of us shimmers a tiny universe worth trying to see and know.

This coming summer will likely be my last chance to look out into our backyard. I will leave the nest, my childhood home, next year. Goodbye to the red-whiskered bulbuls whistling atop our TV antenna. Goodbye to the spotted doves, two lumps on our lawn. Goodbye to the honeyeaters and the figbirds. Goodbye to the magpies and the wrens in our orange tree. Another morning song awaits.

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