Ostriches, but no grandmothers
[& then I come out on to flat land again, & see two huge birds descending into a field ahead on the right. From the distance I think eagles at first because of the size; but when I come up to the field & stop the car & get out I see that they are slender, & incredibly tall. There are about fifty of them, some picking around in the small bushes, others on a ridge spreading their wings in some sort of dance. Incredibly elegant & fantastic to behold.
(Later I try to find them in my bird book, but the only comparable bird I can find is the great-billed heron. The size is right – one and a half meters tall – & the gray colour is right & their range is right, but nothing else matches. They are water birds, & there are no estuaries near here. Do another search, with different parameters, & find the bird in question is the brolga. “[They] bow, advance & retreat, trumpet, & fling objects in the air.” )]
Now, having seen a photo of the brolga, went yesterday wandering to confirm that that is what I saw the other day. Took the easy way to get there, thirty kilometers up the bitumen, another five on dirt roads, no hesitation this time, no false turns.
Found the field, & fifty birds. Definitely the brolga. Dancing, spread-winged, wide-winged, thin-legged. Judging by the earthworks around their dancing ground it was possibly a sometime dam, with sufficient dampness for the sedge not to wither & for the birds to sing. Stood by the car & watched them, coming & going, flying one behind the other, up to five in a straight line, dashed.
& we, coming & going, passed a kangaroo grazing in the long grass & shrubs by the side of the road. L. says it’s probably a red, but strange to see it out in the middle of the afternoon since they usually prefer dawn & dusk. But maybe not enough traffic for it to worry about, & so feels comfortable in this domain, at any time. It paused & watched us, & bounded off when we backed up to get a closer look. A male kangaroo, big-balled & arrogant.
& on the way back towards the tarseal discovered an ostrich farm, hidden by a hedge on the way out. Dusty, no grass, feedbins. Lots of ostriches. But the sight spoilt by the body of a dead bird, with crows picking at the corpse.
Another cotton farm on the way home. Again its sighting dependent on the direction in which one is traveling. Peripheral vision signed one-way.
The bebop bird
This morning, amongst the raucous caws of the crows, the harsh shrieking of the white cockatoos, & the shrill trills of the magpie larks, I heard a bebop bird. Drlllll do be dlop / a dulya dop, drlllll do be dlop / a dulya dop…..that’s how it went, sort of like the tunes Benny Golson used to do with Art Blakey &, later, The Jazztet — not those lyrical pieces such as Whisper Not or I Remember Clifford but the laidback ones like Killer Joe that include a point when the ensemble stops, the soloist comes in, & the drummer goes back to heightening that fourth beat of the bar. 1 2 3 clock, 1 2 3 clock. All that’s missing here.
The birds, the birds
I have often written about birds as omens, but, if you went back over the various pieces, it would soon become obvious that they were all about birds as omens of something good. That’s not because I don’t like dwelling on the bad. Rather it’s because I wouldn’t know a bad bird omen if it flew up & bit me on the ass.
Sure, it’s not hard to find examples. Just read H. P. Lovecraft or watch one of several Hitchcock movies. The Romans were big on birds. Their haruspices could interpret what was meant by birds appearing at a particular time, or the size of the flock, or the direction they were travelling in, or the type, or any combination of those things. & in New Zealand there is a jagged gap in a range of hills near Lake Taupo that is known as the place where the taniwha (a kind of dragon) went through; & the local Māori believe that if a bird is seen flying in that gap then it presages the sighter’s death. I know of at least one self-willed death because of such a sighting.
To me, a flock of sulfur-crested cockatoos going bananas outside my window at 5.30 in the morning is not omenic but an unwanted alarm clock. &, during the day, there are so many birds around that most of the time they’re just part, & often an unnoticed part, of the landscape.
This morning, as I was hanging out the washing, there was a thunk from the window five or so meters above my head, & a bird suddenly dropped at my feet. Birds flying into the windows are nothing new, but usually they’re the stupid ones like the magpie larks that see their own reflection & immediately fly to attack the intruder. This was a kingfisher, a beautiful bird, usually solitary, patient but skittish at noise. Not for nothing is one variety known as the sacred kingfisher. They’ve been a favorite of mine for more than sixty years.
It lay there, neck bent at what seemed to me an unnatural angle. I freaked. To use a totally inappropriate cliché, it was as if the chickens had finally come home to roost. Here am I, self-professed proclaimer that birds are omens; & one of the special ones, the beautiful ones that you are always pleased to see, is lying dead at my feet. Sweet Jesus, what can I expect around the corner!
I gathered it up in a dustpan, ready to get rid of it in the garbage. But I couldn’t bring myself to dispose of it. There was still a faint thread of breath — perceived death gasps — so I moved it out into the open, ostensibly as some sort of wish that it might revive. The reality was it was more to provide time to steel myself to perform the act of merciful expedition. With that neck looking like it was, there seemed to be no hope.
I kept on hanging out the washing, almost blubbering by now, thinking dark thoughts, keeping an eye on a pair of butcher birds that had suddenly decided to take up a vantage point in the tree above where the kingfisher lay, laid out on its plastic bier. Butcher birds have a beautiful melodic song, but they get their name from their habit of hanging their food — lizards, large insects, etc. — up on a convenient small branch.
Thus the next few minutes went. Me desolate, whether over the bird’s impending death or my impending doom. Slow motion. The birds on the tree, the bird on the ground, me mundanely keeping on hanging out the washing. Blubbering, nothing almost about it. Then the kingfisher raised its head & a couple of minutes or so later stood up. & stayed standing there for a full ten minutes, immobile, until I wandered over towards it & it took off up into a tree, to remain there for another ten minutes. Then off somewhere unseen.
Who knows what kingfishers think when their consciousness disappears. Are they even conscious of it, that passage of black time? Do they think it an alien abduction, perhaps, maybe coming back from it with an anal probe, or a microchip up a nasal passage? Or do they think they’ll have to stay away from those black beetles, that they do terrible things to their sense of balance? Or window, what window? Do they start checking their body parts, & are pleased to find the “syndactylism of the 3rd & 4th digit” still remains?
Anyway, I was relieved, stopped blubbering, enjoyed the resurrection. Sat down to watch a koel come & land in a chilli bush not much bigger than itself, delicately balance on & bounce amongst the branches to pick the chillies, one by one. Things back to normal.
Except there were three ibises blocking the driveway when I came home in the afternoon, refusing to let me pass. What should I make of that?
Mark Young lives in a small town in North Queensland in Australia, & has been publishing poetry for almost sixty years. He is the author of over forty books, primarily text poetry but also including speculative fiction, vispo, & art history. His work has been widely anthologized, & his essays & poetry translated into a number of languages. His most recent book is les échiquiers effrontés, a collection of surrealist visual poems laid out on chessboard grids, just published by Luna Bisonte Prods. Due out later this year is The Word Factory: a miscellany, from gradient books of Finland, & an e-book, A Vicarious Life — the backing tracks, from otata.
Featured Image Credit: John Gould, The Birds of Australia.