Can a bird die of heartbreak?
"It's something we never thought was possible," says Gisela Kaplan, a professor at the University of New England and the author of Bird Minds. "That an animal can grieve, let alone a bird."
And yet it appears they can. As evidence, Kaplan tells the story of a tawny frogmouth. (That’s not an owl, as she is quick to correct me.)
She knew the bird well, having reared it from two weeks old on her Armidale property. She trained it to fly and fend for itself. After she released it, it found a female mate. The pair produced nestlings of their own. “It was highly successful,” Kaplan recalls.
Tragedy struck when the female was run over. Kaplan found it on the highway and recognised its markings. Then she heard a sound and looked up. Its partner, the bird she had raised, was whimpering on a nearby post.
This was a distinctive sound that Kaplan had previously heard only from juveniles when they had lost a parent or were being driven out of home. “It sounds like a baby crying. It affects you to listen to it.”
For four days and nights, the tawny frogmouth refused to move from the post by the highway. It did not eat or drink. Of a morning, Kaplan could see icicles on its beak. “The whimpering never stopped, you see. It died, it actually died.”
More and more evidence indicates the complexity of the inner lives of birds, which have always been a source of fascination for humans. A new exhibition – BIRDS: Flight Paths in Australian Art – gives us the results of that obsession, in the form of over 70 works by 50 artists.
The gallery is the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, and the focus is mainly on Australian art and birds. That includes early depictions by John Lewin and Richard Browne, but the show packs the biggest punch with its modern and contemporary works. Among artists working now, there are arresting pieces from Petrina Hicks, Christian Thompson, Ben Quilty, Kate Rohde and more.
Curator Danny Lacy singles out his favourites: Sydney Long’s brolgas in The Spirit of the Plains, on loan from the National Gallery of Australia (“very symbolist, very Art Nouveau inspired”); and the white cockatoo and kookaburra in Claudia Terstappen’s meticulous roadkill photographs.
Professor Kaplan will be there as guest expert, guiding walks and speaking on bird behaviour, telling stories like the one about the grieving tawny frogmouth.
Stewart Russell of Spacecraft Studio will recreate the cafe as a homing pigeon club, and with the help of a local club – it boasts a membership of six – hopes to stage a pigeon launch on Australia Day.
Plus, visitors can plaster a wall with bird stickers by Juan Ford. (The latter sounds at first like a fun, if token, gesture, but in versions elsewhere — at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Nakanojo Biennale in Gunma, Japan – it’s had startling results.)
Behind all this activity, there is a serious point. Australian migratory bird numbers are in freefall, experts say. Even some common birds, like kookaburras and magpies, are in serious decline in parts of the country.
As for Kaplan’s tawny frogmouth, sightings of the bird have more than halved since 1999, according to extensive surveys by conservation organisation BirdLife Australia.
The probable causes are many – from cats to habitat loss to changes in climate. For migratory birds like the curlew sandpiper and eastern curlew, which breed on the tundra of Arctic Siberia and fly to Australia for the summer, a University of Queensland report points to the destruction of the tidal flats of the Yellow Sea. These migratory birds, like many human travellers, take a stopover in east Asia, but at last count 65 per cent of these feeding grounds had disappeared.
It’s an international story. While the decline is not uniform, the overall trend is towards decreasing populations. Stanford University biologists have predicted that one in four species could be “functionally extinct” by the end of the century. That means critically endangered or extinct in the wild.
Beyond twitchers and their journals, how will we feel the loss of birds? First, I think, as the belated realisation that a distinctive soundscape has gone. A Swedish friend who lived for some years in Australia recalls the experience of waking in the morning to raucous birdsong and bright sunlight as her strongest impression of being in this country. It’s easy not to notice those sounds fading, but fading they are.
The decline comes just as we begin to know the true extent of birds’ social and cognitive lives. The worlds of humans and birds have always overlapped, and yet they remain apart and to a great degree unknown. Paying attention to birds is a different way of moving through the world, as I noticed recently while hiking with an ecologist.
We were walking near Govetts Leap in the upper Blue Mountains, and it was the day we learnt the outcome of the US elections. Those wild results were coming in, and I was glued to my phone, refreshing whenever I could pick up a signal.
Fittingly, it was so misty we couldn’t see the view. Even so, my ecologist friend spotted birds I would never have noticed, like a high-up golden whistler. She checked her field guide, not her phone, throughout the afternoon.
That’s not to say that bird-watching means a retreat from human affairs. Quite the opposite is true – if you take seriously the threat to bird populations and the largely human causes. What remains to be seen is whether birds can live with us.
To put that question another way, putting humans in the frame, can we find ways to coexist with birds without squeezing out most of their number?
We still have a great love of birds, as these artworks attest. We find them endlessly captivating. They can be funny, conniving and transcendently beautiful. They can mimic a dog’s bark or cry for lost love out on a highway near Armidale, and there is much to be gained by paying attention to their lives.
BIRDS: Flight Paths In Australian Art, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, December 2, 2016 – February 12, 2017. See more at mprg.mornpen.vic.gov.au