You don’t need a PhD to tune into birds. Just open your ears to the soundtrack of your neighbourhood
I learned that loving birds is best done by walking in the sun, being curious and appreciating the chatter. Not by sitting on my own looking at books and screens
- Vote for your favourite bird in the 2021 Guardian/BirdLife Australia Bird of the Year poll
I once saw a picture of a kid standing proudly next to his science project. It was a handmade poster and emblazoned across the top was the strikingly catchy title: “Birds: they’re fucking everywhere!”Obviously photoshopped, these words nevertheless struck me as being both funny and more or less true.
Many years ago, camping in the Cathedrals in Victoria, I woke early to a strange, whirring birdcall. Groggily, I unzipped the tent enough to stick my head out and squinted unattractively in the dawn light. The bird I saw had astonishing violet-blue eyes and was sort of, I dunno, stripy? I am, you may have guessed, a novice birder. So, I did the exact thing that any experienced birder will tell you not to do. I pulled my head back inside my tent and went straight for my field guide. If you too are new to birding, here’s a tip: your field guide isn’t likely to fly away in the next few seconds and (if you’re not me) you have this ace thing called working memory. So get your priorities straight, put down your field guide (or, more likely these days, your phone) and give your new friend your undivided attention. Because life is short and this moment is fleeting.
In this case, violet eyes and “sort of stripy” was enough for me to determine that I had just seen a female satin bowerbird. This was very exciting! Of course, by the time I figured out who my new friend was, she had absconded. Satin bowerbirds are perhaps not so elaborate in their art as other bowerbirds. Mainly, they just really, really love blue stuff. Think Bic pen lids and pallet strapping. Armed with this knowledge (gleaned from watching way too many David Attenborough films), I rummaged around our esky, pulled the blue plastic ring off a milk bottle and placed it carefully in the shrubs where I’d have a good view of it.
I sat on my esky waiting, shivering and clutching my binoculars. My boyfriend suggested this was not how he envisaged our weekend proceeding. By midday, our shady campsite was still damp and cold and I finally relented. As per our original plan, my boyfriend and I headed off for a hike.
Just a few dozen steps away, at the centre of the campground, the sun was shining and people were eating fish and chips at a picnic table. A large group of birds flocked in a nearby tree, individuals periodically swooping down and milling about on the ground waiting for scraps. These birds were like the seagulls of the Cathedrals campground. They were satin bowerbirds. And among them, I saw an adult male; a hint of deep blue shining from his ostensibly black plumage in the sun. Through my appalled indignation that my coveted, rarely glimpsed bird was, it turns out, quite common, there was a very simple, uncomplicated joy.
Here’s another tip. If you’re lucky enough to find a quirky little hobby you love, don’t overcomplicate it. Think carefully, for instance, before you rush out to turn it into a PhD. As the late, great, Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Something, something, something. Just chill out.” Don’t quote me on that.
For a while, as you may have cleverly deduced, I tried to turn my love of birds into a PhD. My supervisor told me that I had to learn their calls if I was going to have any chance of gathering the data I needed. Briefly, a new world opened up to me. I tuned in to the sounds of my neighbourhood. In the background, unnoticed and taken for granted, my feathered neighbours engaged in near constant chatter. My newfound curiosity about birdsong – these little waves of compressed and rarefied air floating through time and space – rendered the everyday and the mundane new, bright and fresh. Alas. Before long, my own psychology got in the way of forward progress. I found myself binge-watching Downton Abbey and labelling shelves in my linen cupboard during the precious short stretches in which my children were at kinder or with grandparents. I fell further and further behind. Each day I stepped outside my door the birdsong was still there to greet me. Only now, it reminded me, cruelly, of my steadily growing list of missed milestones, my problems with avoidance, the fact that I was letting everyone down. Birdsong, I’m sorry to say, became the ubiquitous, tormenting soundtrack to my own failure. So, I made like the proverbial ostrich sticking its head in the sand (they don’t really do this), and I closed my ears to the birds.
It may not surprise you to know that a couple of weeks ago, I broke up with my PhD. And I am happy to report, that as soon as I made that decision, the magic of birdsong returned to me.
It turns out that for me, loving birds is best done by simply walking in the sun, being curious, appreciating my landscape. Not sitting on my own in the cold and the dark looking at books and screens. Although, to be fair, books and screens can be very helpful. So go forth. Feel the sun on your skin. Open your ears to the soundtrack of your neighbourhood. Open your heart to the beauty of nature. Notice the birds. They really are fucking everywhere.