[Editor: This story by C. J. Dennis was published in The Singing Garden (1935).]
Blandishing the Birds
The honourable company of bird-lovers, we are told, is rapidly increasing in numbers in all parts of the country; and while one delights to observe this growing interest in our native songsters — many of them of rare and exquisite beauty that reveals itself sometimes only after long and intimate observation — it must be recognized that there are bird-lovers and bird-lovers. Quite possibly, there are also more than a few bird-lovers; but, so far, I have succeeded in isolating only two of these groups.
So long as one manages to keep one’s enthusiasm within reasonable bounds, and refrains from being an absolute bore, much virtue may lie in bird-loving.
But when your bird-lover, ignoring the restraint, develops into a bird-bore and a pestiferous crank, he or she is something to avoid.
Perhaps you know the sort of thing I mean. Imagine yourself a week-end guest at the country shack of a family, all of whom have gone perfectly potty about native bird life; so much so that you expect them to break out in feathers at any moment themselves.
With an appetite made keen by the country air, you are seated, let us say, at breakfast, and, having taken the raw edge off your hunger, have launched off confidently on your favourite conversational topic.
Just as you are about to make the first and most important point, demanding close and intelligent attention, the host suddenly sits bolt upright in his chair, as if he had been shot, and, forefinger erect, and head cocked knowingly aslant, burbles rudely and irrelevantly: “Pst! Hush! Listen! Surely that was the call of the red-rumped Athanthisa! How unusual at this time of year. Let’s go out and investigate.”
The whole family rises forthwith and rushes out of doors; and you must either sit tight and breakfast boorishly alone, or go out with the rest and develop crick-in-the-neck gazing foolishly up innumerable trees, while the bacon lies in rapidly congealing fat, the kidneys grow cold, and the ants gleefully discover the marmalade. Finally, at the end of some twenty minutes, when one has bruised both shins and tripped over every protruding root in the paddock, the amazing discovery is made that the songster is not a red-rumped Athanthisa at all. It is a short-tailed stint, or even, perhaps, a yellow-bellied shrike-tit.
Then everyone troops back to a ruined breakfast, exclaiming brightly:
“Fancy making a mistake like that! So absurd, you know.”
Brother, have you, too, suffered?
But this brings me to the rather humiliating confession that even I and my household at one time came dangerously near to developing this terrible malady.
In this country cottage, we had cajoled and fed and fraternized with certain robins and grey thrushes and magpies until they fearlessly took food from our hands. Already the virus was working insidiously within us, when an artist friend came to stay and observe, and remained to heap scorn on our Arcadian employ.
“Blandishing the birds,” he called it, and waxing ethical and psychological and ornithological, he proceeded to read us a severe and chastening lecture.
He held that all this feeding and unnatural friendship — especially with very young birds — was merely pauperizing, for our own selfish satisfaction and love of display, a free, independent and hitherto happy race of people who were far better left to their own devices.
It was, he said, undermining insidiously their natural self-reliant qualities, teaching them laziness and mendicity and generally upsetting the beautiful balance of nature.
He pictured the painfully crude efforts of this inept sissy-bird to dig up a living for himself thereafter, his fumbling attempts, with undeveloped vision and ineffective beak, to acquire, at the age of six months, a trade which every self-respecting “uncivilized” young bird begins to master before he is more than a few weeks old.
He painted, in glowing word pictures, the despair, the shame, the growing inferiority complex of this unhappy fledgeling — a complex magnified by the ribald mockery of his normally efficient fellows, whose derision mounted to savage contempt and ended at last in physical violence.
We were almost in tears when our friend had finished his harrowing recital, and I, for one, might have been wholly convinced had he not utterly stultified his own argument early next morning as we observed him through a window.
Thinking himself unseen, he spent half an hour in patient but clumsy efforts to induce a yellow robin to accept from his hand a soggy lump of cold rice pudding — a food which yellow robins very rightly scorn and despise.
But still I am left with my quandary, which some real nature student may be able to solve: Can man improve upon nature, and does a blandished bird lose caste?
C. J. Dennis, The Singing Garden, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935, pages 20-23
Arcadia = paradise; utopia; a serene place of simple pleasure (derived from Arcadia, an ancient region of Greece)
potty = somewhat crazy, a bit mad, silly; enthusiastic, very keen
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