Watching birds around us is a step into a time warp. Our own busy lives pause or stop. Often we ‘read’ what we see as important signs. The chorus of kookaburras in the dark means the dawn is near. The flock of terns dipping into a patch of ocean is a clue that small fish are schooling below. The flight of the swallows back and forth under the eaves is the pattern of parents returning with food for chicks. When rosellas crowd selected bottlebrush blossoms, they find the ones flowing with the day’s fresh nectar. But brace yourself for a culture shock: birds are watching us. They ‘read’ us. Whatever do they make of such signals?
Consider a group of parrots. We call this a ‘pandemonium’. This curious word, invented by the poet John Milton in 1667, describes ‘a place of all demons’. A shrieking group of birds can certainly be a frightful noise, but there is method to the madness. You know when you get too close as one bird raises a particular alarm. What you do next matters: if you relentlessly move in, the pandemonium rises and all fly away.
We know the wild birds that recognise us: the seagulls looking for handouts at the park, the willy wagtails that flutter around as we stir up edible insects, the magpies that dive-bomb. Some recognition remains unfathomable. On the tall post, at eye level, a kookaburra or crow looks at you.
Stop. This moment could be the first, like that glance ‘across a crowded room’. Look away. Look back. Tilt your head. Step back. Make a small noise. Wait. If the bird is calm and interested, watch and wait. Some birds are not only used to the presence of people but will engage. Back off. Wait. Sit down.
Just as a spider’s web anticipates the presence of a fly, every animal has some type of personal ‘space’ and ‘zone of attention’ which can be entered or avoided. Although there are generalisations for species, and capacities vary enormously, animals are individuals. Most of them we never get to know.
Pause before you enter the collective spaces of wild animals. What you see as a few trees or lawn, a patch of forest or beach is also constantly observed by others. Look around. Listen as you pass. Pause. Watch with your skin or with those eyes in the back of your head. Stretch your sense of personal space.
With practice, you may hear the signals birds pass along that announce your presence and alerts others. You may notice that further off, a swamp wallaby freezes, waiting for your next step. Another prefers to hop away now. You’ll scan the flight paths along the beach and at the back of the surf, anticipating the presence of the sea eagle or the string of seabirds. You walk wide around roosting birds or crouch down, watching.
Waiting long enough on the beach, you might see a bubbler crab scuttle out, making small balls of sand as she chews on microbes. Floating with snorkel mask face down in the water near shore, you might notice that stingrays and flatheads in hiding notice you. Small fish shelter under you. You may hear the clicks of nearby dolphins, never seeing them. Your own clicks seem to be ignored.
I am often lost for words about animal presence, ours and others. The structure of writing pressures me for clear facts within a straightforward narrative. I think of how people watch for a moment at each cage they pass in a zoo. Caught in our own enclosures of routines and duties, we the human zoo hurry along. Others are catching only fleeting glimpses of us as a passing presence, busy, noisy. The sperm whales unhooking sablefish from longlines set in waters deeper than 450 metres: what do they make of the fishermen that they watch at work?
Sometimes I notice a report or hear a person describing animal ‘culture’. Biologists Whitehead and Rendell define this as the information and behaviours shared within a community, learned from others of their own kind in a social setting. Not surprisingly, many reports are about mammals on land and in the sea, each with their own intricate social networks, communications and coordinated behaviours.
Sharks also have friendships and learn from each other as well as humans. A Fijian diving group trained their local population of a hundred bull sharks to approach quietly and receive chunks of fish. Individual sharks have personalities, routines and a place in the pecking order. In the holistic sea, different species defer to one another and all seem to swim to one side of the great white.
My story is drifting. I look again at this painting of the rosellas (Platycercus species) in the bottlebrushes (Callistemon species) and come back into our human culture. Our traditions with paint and gold leaf present a surface of delight, while our practices for building knowledge take us deeper still.
From ecologist Suzanne Simard, we hear that trees share nutrients with each other by means of the fungi growing at their roots. In this way, large ‘mother’ trees of a forest ‘help’ seedlings within and across species. Hundreds, even thousands, of years of plant management. Absorbing all these culture shocks. Whatever shall we humans become?