This page features Lyn Richards’ poems about local birds. We asked Lyn to give us some background about how these poems came about. Here is her reply: “Birds’ Words was for my baby grandson (whose first word was ‘bird’) to show him the personalities of a dozen of his local birds and get him thinking about what they are saying.“
Sweetest is the magpie’s song at sundown
Chortling at the doings of the day.
Most birds by evening time have simply run down
But magpies warble on with lots to say.
Their song is long and liquid, and it reaches
Over trees and hills – to far away.
Most birds have words, but magpies sing in speeches,
"Quardle oodle ardle wardle lay".
[Editor’s note: The Australian magpie has a wide variety of calls, many of which are complex and, unlike many other birds, the females sing as well as the males. And, of course, the Australian magpie is actually a type of butcherbird, not a type of magpie.]
Their tiny sweet pipe is so high
You'd think they were modest and shy.
But each cheekily sings,
"If you only had wings
Just think of the ways you could fly!"
They twitter while hanging from flowers
They tinkle in bushes for hours.
They hover for honey
And think you are funny
For having such limited powers.
They can dash, dangle, swivel and swerve
Flit and sip. Then they'll tweet and observe:
"If you were this light
You could feed here in flight –
If you grew a long beak with a curve."
[The spinebill is one of few Australian honeyeaters capable of hovering whilst feeding. But spinebills are not hummingbirds. Watch this video which explains the difference, celebrates the spinebill as our most skilful hovering honeyeater and discusses its cheeky 'tik' call. It also explains why this tiny bird, Lyn's favourite honeyeater, is rarely in our garden: spinebills feed alone or in pairs, and are easily driven out by flocking, larger honeyeaters like the bossy New Holland, which rules Lyn's garden. Hummingbirds have never reached Australia but ruby-throated hummingbirds were introduced in the mid-19th century, initially near Sydney then to Queensland and (unsuccessfully) to Tasmania. They’ve spread into SA and WA, but are reputedly not an ecological risk.]
When someone says "You're a Galah!", do you think
That they mean you’re so handsome in silver and pink?
Or that you and your friends can so brilliantly fly
In a cloud turning silver, then pink in the sky?
Or perhaps that your balancing act is so clever?
Do they mean you are smart? Or intelligent? NEVER!
It’s always "You SILLY Galah!" So who's silly?
You humans can't fluff feathers up when it's chilly.
You laugh at our noise when we chatter and squawk
But we're far more efficient than you when we talk.
One screech tells us "danger!" A squeal tells us "food!"
A long squawk means "Clear off!" (Galah words aren’t rude.)
And your sense of humour is really the joke
Would galahs waste their time building us a Big Bloke?
[The Big Galah, a member of Australian Big Things, is, at Kimba, at a point allegedly halfway across Australia. The 8 metre pink and grey bird is at 15351 Eyre Highway. Google Maps gives the distance from Perth to Sydney as 3,934km by road, the shortest road distance from Sydney to Kimba as ~1700km, and that from Kimba to Perth ~2230km, so it's not really close to halfway. As the 'crow flies' calculations also don’t make Kimba halfway. But maybe no other truck stop or 'big thing' is nearer halfway.]
The butcherbird did not deserve
His ugly name, he feels.
What's wrong with his efficiency
In dealing with his meals?
His song's the brightest, sweet and loud
All spring and summer long.
He surely would be better named
The Bird of Lovely Song?
But being sweet of spirit,
He's happy to forgive
And so he sings with all his heart,
"A lovely place to live!"
[Whilst the grey butcherbird is common across Nillumbik, its song isn't! In Eltham, the local butcher birds, according to Lyn's Dad, sang “Twelve dollars twelve”! But when Lyn moved to Kangaroo Ground, she was wakened early and greeted all the day with a clear lilting musical call, "A lovely place to live"! Same bird, different postcode.
Grey butcherbirds often sing a favourite phrase involving two birds- male first, female responding. It's almost 'postcode specific' and a few kilometres away, you can hear another duetting pair with a different phrase altogether. Their song is a social song, usually a duet, sometimes with more group members. It's often antiphonal – i.e. different group members sing different phrases sequentially, or even overlapping, so you can't tell if more than one is singing. And it's territorial, announcing the territory with loud, clear, musical boundaries. Most songs are sung with more than one phrase, lasting up to 15 minutes.
They're the greatest parrots,
With strongest longest wing.
You’d think that they’d be loudest
But listen when they sing –
A little silver whistle,
A tiny bell-like ring.
Their talk is quiet and gentle.
This King and Queen don’t need
To squawk and screech to get their way –
They whisper as they feed.
"We’re glad you love it here, like us,
And thank you for the seed."
We think his call is laughing –
A funny noise to make.
But actually, he is calling
To say he’s wide awake.
He caught sight of his breakfast,
And now, make no mistake,
He’ll swoop and catch and carry it,
And laugh enough to make
You laugh out loud – but when you laugh –
He thinks you've seen a snake!
[Whilst male and female laughing kookaburras look similar, unusually they are 'reverse size dimorphic', which means that the adult females are typically larger than the adult males (by around 15%). They are also siblicidal, which means that the eggs in a clutch hatch at different times and, depending on the availability of food, the elder hatchlings might kill their younger siblings.
The laughing kookaburra is a species of kingfisher and its formal moniker is Dacelo novaeguineae. Here is the naming story, according to Wikipedia.
First, it's not native to New Guinea. Apparently its original describer, who never visited New Guinea, mixed up specimens.
Second, the genus 'Dacelo' is an anagram of 'Alcedo', which is one of the other genera of kingfishers. Some sort of in-joke?
The native peoples did better. The English name 'kookaburra' is a loan-word, derived from the Wiradjuri Aborigine word guuguubarra, which mimics the bird's laugh-like call. This is a good example of the richly onomatopoeic words in Aboriginal languages.]
[Not only does the poem below include hyperlinks, but it also has footnotes! Is this a world first?]
I've nothing against clever cousin, the crow,
But you must be confused, he's not here. Did you know
All the world's corvids – crow, raven and jackdaw
Evolved from Australia? – (one returned by the back door).
Now they've sorted it – north of Newcastle are three crows1,
And south are three ravens – named…?
When humans take notice of birds that are locals,
They go for bright plumage and sweet-tweeting vocals.
Just think how I feel when I hear you below,
"What's that bird on the gum tree?" "It's only a crow".
Once we were holy, the ancients admired
Our strength and intelligence, all that’s desired
In a bird! What went wrong with the corvid PR
Tells of human assumptions, frankly bizarre.
We eat carrion – so? Recycling is needed,
We’re all black? The beauty of black’s now conceded.
We gather in families – why call that a 'murder'?
Our noise? Conversation – just ask any birder.
I’m black and I’m glossy, I dive, swoop and soar,
I’m noisy and bossy, I "caaaar", "aaaaar" and "kaaaww".
I vocalise brilliantly, chat to my folks,
Solve problems, use tools, I play tricks and tell jokes.
(Hey, humans, how's this one? Take the 'aaaaar'; out of corvid2
And guess what you got? No – sorry, that's morbid.)
All of us corvids are glossy and black,
All of us corvids are smart as a tack,
(There are 120 species of corvids but those
Are clearly outshone by the ravens and crows.)
So when you find me in your Nillumbik haven
Please address me correctly, I'm a smart Little Raven3.
[1 Three ravens (Australian, Little and Forest) live in the temperate zone and sheep/wheat belt, and the two crows (Torresian and Little) inhabit the tropics and arid zone. The House Crow, the backdoor re-entrant from Asia, is a 'vagrant' with no territory. The differences are slight. A nice summary here in an amateur site with photography of little ravens.
2 By which you would get covid.
3 Actually, I may be an Australian Raven, but that's less likely: anyway, the difference is very subtle. Lots of detail here.]
[To a mudlark – with apologies to Shelley.]
Hail the murray magpie,
(My South Australian name)
I always wear a black tie
A white throat marks my dame.
We mate for life and sing duets, our greatest claim to fame.
Hail to me, sweet pee wee,
Prim in black and white,
My 'peep peep' rings out clearly
From grass or tree or flight.
I’m fussy, busy foraging, a little bit uptight.
Hail the mudlark, I'm the best
Bird-architect in dirt,
With mud and sticks I craft my nest.
Defend my chicks from hurt.
My call annoys? It warns: "This bird is always on alert."
(What did that poet mean by saying, ‘Bird thou never wert?)
[Is the magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca), which is neither a magpie nor a lark, the only bird to have 4 different names specific to different Australian states?
Look at some photos with detail of markings, including the male/female differences in head colour pattern. Listen to the call. The magpie-lark is one of around 200 birds worldwide that sing 'duets' with their partner. They have two special duetting skills – they 'conduct' with body and wing movement and one partner will sing 'pseudo-duets' to divert a predator while the other guards the nest.
Lyn's normal morning foragers at Kangaroo Ground are groups of magpie-lark pairs plus Australian magpies (which, of course, are also not magpies!).]
Maned ducks (aka Australian wood ducks)
The troubles of your world?
Don't dump on ducks.
We’re peaceable, sensible things
Pair for life, walk and fly
On strong legs and strong wings.
So long as there's water nearby
We deal with challenges any place brings,
Cross roads, stop trucks,
Forage wherever there's grass;
Sidewalk, golf course –
Dodge runners and balls
And the occasional horse.
The trouble is your world!
Don’t turn to ducks
For comfort, pretty pictures, silly rhymes.
Take action now –
We're all in dangerous times.
All ducks require is grass and trees, and yes,
Fresh water – best with muds and slimes.
What humans need – now here’s the crux –
Is what they wreck. So start reforming
Your politics and practice to address
*F.W. Harvey was a war poet, writing during the First World War of the troubles of the world and the beauties of Gloucestershire. His best known poem is 'Ducks', reputedly written on return from solitary confinement after an escape attempt, when he saw a fellow prisoner’s drawing of ducks.
[The maned duck (aka Australian wood duck) – Chenonetta jubata – is a regular springtime visitor to Nillumbik's grassy places. The plumage is complex and very different from other ducks, and the male's dark head has a neat mane. Pairs mate for life and nest in tree hollows, from which the new hatchlings are apparently tossed by the female from the tree to the ground, to gather in family groups and famously hold up traffic on roads.
Maned ducks are one of the few Australian native animals that has benefitted from European settlement – dams and grassy fields took them across all of Australia except the driest centre. But they are vulnerable to clearing of trees (and nest sites) as well as loss of water sources.
The photo is by Rosie Nicola.]
New Holland honeyeaters
Eeep, cheep, teeny tweet
Carries forever, sharply sweet
Calls the crew to a meet and greet.
Neat feat, balancing trick
Hang from a petal, delicate, quick
Sip, slip then give it a flick.
Dash, crash, torpedo attack
Walloping wattlebird lands with a smack
Bombing the little birds, zooming back.
But a bush full of hidden birds chuckling and chittering
Secretly sniggering, bright feathers flittering,
Chatters in tweets, high fives sent by twittering.
Wattlebird glower on your treetop tower
Wait till a bird again rides every flower
Bomb! B52 with superb flying power…
But zip, flip, and the thickest twigs screen
Flashed feathers of yellow and white can’t be seen.
We ride in our hide of sharp, dense, prickly green.
Think of us, then, you people who push
Suburbia’s boundaries out to the bush
Clearing and battering, mowing land flat
Space for a playground, home for a cat.
Pruning sparse gardens, smoothing what’s rough –
Please people, leave tough
[The New Holland honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae) was among the first birds from our continent to be scientifically described (hence the name). It is one of the most active – and aggressive – local birds. It is communal, performing ‘corroborees’, displaying and noisily chittering. To defend their territory, they use a ‘mobbing’ method: if an enemy or competitor nears, a watch-bird on a high branch warns sharply and a group forms fast to distract and attack. They often battle with wattlebirds over nectar bushes – whilst the wattlebirds are bigger, the New Holland honeyeater are usually in greater numbers. If you have New Hollands, there’s a price for this entertainment, however: more pacifist honeyeaters will go elsewhere.]
(To the tune of I am the very model of a modern major General.)
I am the perfect parrot for a photo opportunity
I perch on hats, or land on hands and poop there with impunity.
I squawk and talk or nip your ear and whisper you a pleasantry,
Bring tourists to the wildlife park and entertain the peasantry.
My plumage is superb, my colours absolutely exquisite –
Blue, green, gold, red, for photos these are always a prerequisite.
All I need is lots of seed to profit your community!
I am the perfect parrot for a photo opportunity.
But look into my eyes, you’ll see another personality,
I'm mean and tough and smart enough for nasty criminality,
The bully at the seed tray, even when I've had sufficiency,
I’ll nick your lunch and eat it with remarkable efficiency.
I’ll call a mob to do a job, and we make no apology –
It’s all a part of (gee I'm smart) my lorikeet psychology.
Among the parrots it's well known I am an abnormality;
Just look into my eyes, to see my evil personality,
So when your apples ripen in this Eden that is Nillumbik
Your net, I bet, is useless to defend the crop you plan to pick.
Like Eve I find an apple irresistible at any price.
A lorikeet sees nets as just a challenge – that's my best advice.
A tiny gap, a squeeze, a flap … it's apple cornucopia!
We peck each fruit to check it’s beaut, and croon about utopia.
We pick and nick, we're quiet and quick, displaying our agility.
Then you appear, you shout and swear and shatter the tranquillity.
Give up the fight, admit I'm right, I'm beautiful though Bolshevik!
Get your apples from the market and let friendship reign in Nillumbik.
[The third photo is courtesy of Marshall Richards.]
Meal complete –
Screech – greet!
Superb blue wren
There’s never just one fairy-wren
A family of five, even ten,
Ping and pipe, their tails wiggling
In bird-talk they’re giggling!
Many helpers, a male and a hen.
“Do you know why we’re laughing at you?
Admit it, you haven’t a clue.
Well, you call us ‘blue wren’
But look closely again –
Have you noticed that only one’s blue!!?”
[Editor’s note: Here is an article about why male superb fairy-wrens – the subject of Lyn’s poem – are blue. For many birds, including the superb fairy-wren, the males and females look very different. In such cases, it is nearly always the male that is colourful and the female that is dull. This happens because the females choose their male partners (the males are basically happy with any partner but the females are more choosy) and they happen to generally like colourful males. So, even though colour makes them more obvious to predators, the colourful males prosper and, over time, colourfulness has become prevalent. This is a process called sexual selection, which is a different process than natural selection even though both were discovered by Charles Darwin. Similarly, with some notable exceptions (such as Australian magpies), it is the male birds that sing rather than the females. And, of course, the archetypal example of sexual selection is the tail of the peacock.]
I'm a white winged black beauty, the chough
Say it wrong, and I’ll get in a hough.
Through your garden we scoughle
And make a kerfoughle
To show that our mob's really tuff.
But a mob is not always nefarious.
We're social, communal, gregarious.
Our play's never ruff.
When we screech, hough and pough
As we shoughle around, we're hilarious.
[The white-winged chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos) is a mud-nest builder. They flock in family groups of up to 20 and are 'obligate cooperative breeders', which means that they must breed in groups in order to produce offspring successfully. Their mud nest may contain eggs from several birds. You will know if they are in your garden, foraging in the leaf litter and muttering to each other (watch this video). They are strong walkers and poor flyers, making a big fuss if disturbed (watch this video). Check out this blog for some images of the chough's red eyes.
The white-winged chough is allegedly the only bird that practices slavery, taking young fledglings from another mob to help with their generally inefficient raising of chicks. (But this accusation, from Wikipedia, which quoted David Attenborough, seems to Lyn to possibly be an anthropomorphism – perhaps the chicks just wanted to move mobs.)]
The heron is a silent bird
Not one to sing or squawk.
He sometimes gives a funny croak
And then goes back to stalk.
He's busy being beautiful,
He hasn't time to talk.
If you were half as proud as he
You’d simply pose and walk.
Need no words.
[The white-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae) is said by some to symbolise peace, calm, intelligence, patience and tranquillity. It presumably won that reputation by being an often solitary feeder and stalking prey silently, waiting, still, to skewer creatures from the water it likes to be near – or, as in this picture, from the deep cracks in the dry summer black clay of Kangaroo Ground. White-faced herons live pretty much everywhere in Australia, except the driest centre of the continent – they don’t need wetlands.
They make a funny croak, usually when flying – you can hear it here.
How do you know if a large waterbird overhead is a heron? All species of herons fly with the neck retracted, not stretched out.]
Tail-waggings a trivial feature;
While I trill, singing 'sweet pretty creature',
(in your bird-song mnemonics),
I can scream histrionics –
Come close to my nest and I'll teach ya!
I say this without an apology:
You need to improve ornithology
Names must fit either gender
You'll always offend her
Till you ditch that passé ideology.
[The photo is from the Courier Mail.
The willie wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) is Australia’s largest fantail. It has two main calls – a 'sweet pretty creature' call and a loud 'rat-a-tat-tat' of aggression and defence – listen to both calls. It can harass, and even attack, far bigger birds, including wedge-tailed eagles, kookaburras and ravens. It drives its own chicks out of its territory soon after they leave the nest: view the nest drama. Watch out for a wagtail's formidable eyebrow – it expands with aggression!
Its Noongar name, Djiti Djiti, comes from its call and Aboriginal lore treats the willie wagtail with caution – it's considered a stealer of secrets and bringer of bad news, which lures children away with its cheeky acrobatic familiarity.]
Yellow-tailed black cockatoos
Not scary if you understand
Their quiet chuckle, happy band,
They’re saying, “Guess who owns this land?“