Deb and Mike are on the balcony of their third-floor apartment, waiting for a rainbow lorikeet they call Epaulettes. Waiting with them is Epaulettes’ mate, Ms Golden, who zoomed in 10 minutes ago and now stands on a hanging seed tray, scanning the sky for her companion.
She’s not going to eat yet because they always feed together, says Deb. Moments later, a rain squall blows in from the sea, chilling the late-afternoon air and jostling the boughs of a nearby Norfolk pine. Ms Golden emits a shrill whistle. She’s calling for Epaulettes, says Deb, frowning. She’s worried. But he’s probably just keeping dry somewhere. He’ll find her.
But … how? The sky is so big, Ms Golden is so small, and rainbow lorikeets are now the most sighted bird in Australia’s urban backyards. How will Epaulettes find his mate among all the others we can hear screeching and whistling across this leafy suburb? For that matter, how do birds in general – who seem to be forever touching down in pairs then hurtling off separately in opposite directions – ever find each other again?
They call, Deb explains patiently. Just like Golden is doing now. They call constantly until they get an answer. Ms Golden moves to the edge of the seed tray and looks about before emitting yet another piercing cry. But still no Epaulettes.
Like many other Australians who feed and befriend wild birds, Deb and Mike’s own nesting days are behind them. Both divorced with adult offspring, they met 12 years ago while walking for exercise in their seaside community north of Brisbane. At the time, Deb – a bird lover all her life – had developed a Pied Piper problem with the ducks she fed with kitchen scraps in a creek near her then-home.
Whenever they spotted her passing on walks, a group of ducks would scramble from the creek and follow her noisily through the busy streets. Concerned for their safety, Deb resorted to a disguise. I’d stick my long hair up under a hat, put on big dark glasses and pass them by on the other side of the road. She laughs triumphantly. I felt a bit silly, but it worked, mostly.
I ask Mike if these were the sort of things that attracted him to Deb. The tall, one-time policeman beams at his partner across the seed-sorting table. Well, just look at her, he says. That’s what appealed to me!
Mike had little interest in birds before meeting Deb, but after they moved in together he became as passionate as her about their daily communes with native species. The first birds they befriended and fed – 11 years ago – were Maggie and Maggots, a pair of magpies who’ve since produced 11 sets of chicks at their lofty nesting site in the nearby Norfolk pine.
I was having coffee here this morning and one of the latest baby magpies flew in, hopped onto my crossword puzzle and just sat there looking at me, says Mike. You can tell by their eyes that, well …
… That they love us, Deb concludes, touching his arm. And we love them.
Maggie and Maggots, who’ve landed on the window sill for their daily portion of chopped beef heart, warble and tilt their heads as though following every word of our anthropomorphic musings. Fiercely territorial, they’ve claimed Mike and Deb as their own and drive off all others who try to intrude on their roughly half-a-square kilometre of suburban territory. (In the bush, where food and water are more scarce, magpies defend much larger areas. )
Now aged about six months, Maggie and Maggots’ boisterous adolescents will soon be kicked out to establish their own territory before the next nesting season. Deb and Mike’s other regular visitors are a pair of harmonising butcherbirds, Cam and Kom – It’s so beautiful! cries Deb, one sings certain notes, the other fills in the blanks – and a bunch of rowdy galahs who, like countless others, have migrated to the coast over recent decades to escape inland droughts.
Experts say lorikeets are nomadic rather than territorial, yet Mike and Deb have been feeding the same three pairs for more than a decade. They’ve had the same partners all that time, reports Deb. They take turns feeding in pairs, but – my goodness – if any newcomers try to muscle in, the regular ones really turn nasty!
Twenty minutes after Ms Golden’s arrival, her mate Epaulettes finally materialises from the eye of another rainstorm. Soaking wet, he stands glumly on the seed tray, copping what sounds like a major bollocking from Golden before they both tuck in. As he dries, the jutting red feathers for which he was named become visible on Epaulettes’ distinctive shoulder plumage.
Mike and Deb’s devotion to the natural world isn’t confined to birds. They also rescue stray or injured animals, exercise dogs and tend gardens without charge for absent or incapacitated neighbours, and gather plastic rubbish from local beaches. Both were okay about being identified in this story, but – after talking to urban ecologist Darryl Jones about the vehemence of opposition to native bird feeding in Australia – I figured first names were a better option.
The author of two books on the theme, and a home-feeder himself, Jones was trolled terribly after the publication of his first book. He wrote the second – The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why It Matters – as a guide to feeding birds properly.
Governments and bird groups contend that feeding upsets natural diets and encourages dependency on humans. But Jones, professor emeritus at Queensland’s Griffith University, argues that feeding small amounts of unprocessed food (ideally seeds or commercial pet food) doesn’t cause dependency. And the data shows that a bird that visits a feeder is taking only about seven per cent of its daily diet that way. So the absolute majority still comes from natural sources.
In the UK and US, roughly half of all households practise some form of bird feeding, which is actively encouraged by wildlife protection groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In Australia, we feed birds at the same rate, says Jones. But here people tend to do it in secret, because the practice is so frowned upon. The fact that millions keep doing it anyway suggests, among other things, that many people in big cities are desperately interested in some sort of connection with nature.
When the rain clears, Ms Golden and Epaulettes finish their snack and blast off into the sunset. So fast, as Deb notes, … they almost scalp you! Mike opens another beer. I never thought I’d get so much pleasure out of just watching birds.
Have the birds somehow played into their own feelings for one another? We pause to watch a galah take the seed tray alongside its chick, whose strut and chaotic head plumage is pure Boris Johnson.
It’s enriched us, says Deb. It’s enriched our lives and our relationship. Because it’s all about love, isn’t it? In the end, it’s always about love.
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