Birdland on the dole
The weather-wise up here in the mountain country amongst the big gums are talking of records. Even the oldest inhabitant admits that “he has never seen the likes before.”
“Thirty-three frosts,” he says, “since May the first, an’ fourteen of ’em without a break. If that ain’t a record, I’ll go ‘he’.”
In my own experience of over twenty years here, I have never before known more than five consecutive nights of frost. Three frosts and then a rain is the general average in a normal winter in this part of the forest.
The sunlit days are ideally beautiful — tragically beautiful when one remembers the conditions in drier areas.
But it is the birds who seem to be having the worst time of it here. For them, glorious days fail to compensate for the grub shortage. I don’t know what has happened to the grubs and worms and other dainties of the avian menu, but they have become suddenly scarce; either perishing in frosty nights or digging deeper in earth in search of warmth.
The birds are equally nonplussed and are rapidly becoming mendicants — diffident at first but, with the discovery that free food is to be had for the asking, gradually assertive and at times positively imperative.
A rather confident grey thrush began the daily procession to the door. He (or she) was the first to be offered a morsel in the way of charity one morning when he had given up foraging and sat disconsolate by the door.
He came again and was fed. Within a very few days he began to look upon the daily dole as his unquestionable right.
At precisely nine o’clock every morning after frost he comes to the branches of a Japanese plum-tree and whistles once — a loud, musical note that permits of only one interpretation: “Here I am. Where’s my breakfast?”
Should the almoner be late, the calls become louder and more frequent, and further delay leads to an outcry that cannot be ignored.
A handful of varied scraps is scattered on the lawn and he dives immediately and breakfasts unafraid, fully aware that he enjoys the privilege and protection of a favourite.
His departure, replete and musically grateful, is the signal for the general descent, First the currawongs, whose shrewd, white eyes have been watching from adjacent gums, secure their provender on the cash-and-carry system, since they know that, because of their greed, they may not linger.
And then come the more diffident satin birds who also carry away and eat their food in private, but as a matter of preference and good manners.
The magpies, those proud and arrogant birds, refuse to eat with the rabble, and insist upon a separate mealtime at another hour of the day.
But, with the disappearance of the larger birds, the small fry come clamouring for their share, for all have been watching and waiting in the bushes round about.
First of these the impertinent yellow robins who have long since learned that to perch cheekily upon a forefinger insures one a full and uninterrupted meal while others catch as catch can in the general scramble. Blue wrens hop about the banquets’ edge; scrub wrens, chats and tits watch their chance to snatch a morsel, and so, until the last small songster has been satisfied.
Then all go about their own lawful occasions, and no bird begs about the door for the rest of that day.
For there is this to be said of the birds: As soon as the frozen earth is in fit state for foraging they prefer to stick to the job, however ill repaid in grubs and other delicacies. After only one frostless night they prefer work to free sustenance, excepting only that aggressively mendicant grey thrush, who seems to have entirely lost his self respect and become determined to loaf on the government for the rest of his feathered life.
C. J. Dennis, The Singing Garden, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935, pages 149-151
almoner = someone who has been appointed for the purpose of distributing alms or charity
chat = a songbird which makes a musical chattering noise; there are various birds called “chats” around the world, including birds in Australia (genera Ashbyia and Epthianura, family Meliphagidae), in North America (genus Granatellus, family Cardinalidae), and in Africa, Asia, and Europe (subfamily Saxicolinae, family Muscicapidae)
dole = a benefit paid for the sustenance of the unemployed, especially an allowance paid by the government; charity or sustenance given to the needy, especially at intervals
gum = gum tree (many, but not all, species of the genus Eucalyptus are known as gum trees)
mendicant = beggar; characteristic of or relating to begging (may also refer to a religious person, such as a monk, who historically did not own personal property, or who lived on alms)
provender = food; animal fodder
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
ain’t (isn’t; is not)
[Editor: Changed “insures one” to “ensures one”.]