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Who doesn’t love a bird book?

8 October 2022 78 views No Comment

Who doesn’t love a bird book?

Why Do Birds Do That? seeks to answer the commonly asked questions about birds and their habits.

Who doesn’t love a bird book?

A new book uncovers some of the secrets to the sometimes strange behaviour of our feathered friends writes ROSS FITZGERALD


By Grainne Cleary

Allen & Unwin, Nonfiction

270pp, $34.99

Why do some birds have colourful feathers while others do not? Why do they attack their own reflections? Why do they have three eyelids?Why do they build nests? Why do baby kookaburras kill their siblings?

Grainne Cleary, inWhy Do Birds Do That?seeks to answer these, and many other commonly asked questions about birds and their habits.

After receiving her PhD from Trinity College, Dublin, Cleary has lived in Australia for many years, working as wildlife ecologist in Melbourne. Since receiving her doctorate on the intriguing topic of the diet of badgers in Ireland, much of her scholarly work has focused on birds. Hence the title of her previous book, Your Backyard Birds.

Although her fine new book mostly references Australian birds, Cleary explains why starlings – an aggressive pest, exotic to Australia – flock together in enormous numbers, usually just before roosting. For starlings, this form of massive flocking, which provides safety in numbers, is called a ‘murmuration.’ This word, it is sometimes asserted, powerfully evokes the sound of the movement of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pairs of starlings‘ wings. Rather than responding to the movements of all the other birds around them, starlings usually match the direction and speed of their nearest neighbours.Yet every bird’s movement affects and is affected by the entire group, allowing information to travel extraordinarily swiftly across the flock. As Cleary concludes, “The result is collective decision-making so agile that a signal to turn, usually initiated by a bird on the outskirts, can flash through a flock of thousands of birds in half a second.”

In a useful and easily accessible, Five Part, question & answer format, Why Do Birds Do That?provides detailed information about the birds we regularly watch and also about birding, ie, the observation of birds in their natural habitats.

As befits a lifelong supporter of the Collingwood Magpies in the Australian Football League, my favourite bird is the black and white Australian magpie. Just as donkeys are surprisingly smart animals, so our native magpies are very intelligent birds, whose warbling is extremely intricate. Although magpies usually sing in the morning, they sometimes warble at night, especially under lights and at a full moon. Often adults will cleverly bring their young to specific places and to people who feed them. Theterritorial swooping of magpies during their nesting season in spring is something many of us have experienced, sometimes to our detriment.

For the record,my second favourite bird is the willie wagtail, which are often found in urban parklands and in the suburbs. Sadly, all the mischievous willie wagtails in my garden in Redfern, Sydney have recently been driven out by indian myna birds. As it happens, one of the most informative sections in Cleary’s fascinating book is “Why do wagtails wag their tails?” I won’t spoil it for readers, but suffice to say that some research suggests that tail-wagging may flush out insects.

While writing this book, Cleary was inspired by the wide range of birds she encountered on the street, in parks and in her back garden. These included magpies, ravens, parrots, galahs and sulphur-crested cockatoos. The behaviour of these and other birds continues to astound her. As she writes, “We are so lucky to have such birds still living in our urban environment.”

Indeed, as their natural environment degrades and declines, some birds that once inhabited rainforests now visit our gardens.As befits a passionate ecologist, Cleary warns that, “As urbanisation increases, our wildlife is losing more and more habitat.” But there is some good news: “The ability of certain species, including some that are threatened, to thrive in our gardens means that gardens help to support and maintain their needs.” As a person who promotes citizen involvement in conservation, she argues that it is incumbent on all of us to make our gardens more wildlife friendly.It is important not just to know which birds frequent our gardens, but to maintain and improve the habitats that support them. What we do in our gardens and urban/suburban spaces can profoundly affect which species can survive and prosper.

If readers wonder, as many of us do, why birds in Australia habitually behave as they do, and what are their peculiar habits, the answers are to be found in this clearly written and beautifully produced paperback, which contains a number of evocative black and white illustrations.

 Fittingly, the front cover of Why Do Birds Do That?is graced by one of our loveliest birds, the variegated wren, which is often found in backyards throughout much of Australia.

Ross Fitzgeraldis Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His most recent publication is MY LAST DRINK:32 Stories of recovering alcoholics,co-edited with Neal Price. (Connor Court, $29.95.) MY LAST DRINK is also available at Amazon and Booktopia.

The Weekend Australian,8 -9October 2022. Review, Books, pp 14-15.

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