When I was fifteen, I did work experience at a vets. It isn’t that I particularly wanted to be a vet; it was probably a case of watching too many episodes of All Creatures Great and Small. At any rate, I should have taken the week off because I felt as sick as the puppies with Parvo Virus I had to sit with to make sure they didn’t pull their drips out. I had the most enormous, disgusting cold sore on my lips and I could barely get any food into my mouth, never mind swallow through the constriction of pain in my throat. Add to these symptoms a bad case of gingivitis complete with bleeding gums and you may not thank me for the mental image I’ve conjured for you.
My mother’s advice was to gargle some aspirin, both as a mouthwash for the gingivitis and as a salve for the general pain I was in. On this occasion, she also suggested that I should watch the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds, screening on television that night. There was a sense of urgency about her suggestion; clearly this was a film worth overcoming illness for. So, there I was with scabby lips, dribbling aspirin and saliva down my chin, watching Tippi Hedren and various children being attacked by birds.
I’ve brought this up, not only because it was a defining film viewing experience (even on a television screen), but because it came to my mind this morning as I was walking to the bus to go to uni for my student consultation hour. I cut through a disused car park on the edges of a business estate to get to the bus stop on C_____ Drive. The last couple of times I’ve done this, I’ve noticed a couple of plovers exhibiting nesting type behaviour in the surrounding grass. On the first occasion, one bird was sitting comfortably, while the other stalked towards me with no regard for its disproportionate size in relation to an adult human female. Today, while one of them sat comfortably, the other was flying around and all the while they were calling to one another.
It’s the flying that makes me uneasy, although a bird with yellow spurs on its shoulders, stalking towards me has no great calming effect either. When I was at high school, we learnt about the Australian Aboriginal legend of the creation of the plover, and while I can’t remember much, I do recall that a young Aboriginal man holding spears to his shoulders was purportedly the origin of the bird. This discussion elicited a number of anecdotes from my fellow class mates who were cool enough to frequent the far reaches of the school oval at lunch time. They told stories of plovers swooping down on them if they got too near during nesting season.
A while ago now, I watched the David Attenborough series, The Life of Birds. On one of the occasions when he spoke about Australian birds, he told of the behaviour of magpies in Brisbane. He showed a woman walking along in a hat and sunglasses, whose gentle stroll was suddenly interrupted by marauding magpies. I’m not sure where they got the footage from—would someone volunteer to be attacked by pecking magpies? It seems a strange thing to have an international profile for; a bit like killer ants in Tasmania (but that’s another documentary). Anyway, clearly the magpies have been training other local bird populations in their tactics. I’m thinking about avoiding cutting through the car park, although taking the footpath actually brings me closer to the plovers. If I walk on the edge of the car park, that might help. But there was a woman there today breaking up bread crusts specifically for the birds.
Is bread good for birds? I had a falling out with a friend over this very question. We were on the deck of an eatery at uni, and she started to give some of her bread to the myna bird that had hopped onto our table. I was shocked that she offered the bird bread for a couple of reasons. First, because feeding them encourages them to hang around food establishments, which brings with it various health issues for humans. I was also surprised because at every zoo or animal park that I’ve ever visited they’ve said not to feed birds bread. I especially remember a sign at Centenary Lakes in Cairns, which warned about the potential harm of excessive bread to pelicans. Ever since then, I’ve imagined birds stomachs filled with soggy bread that causes them to drown or fall from the sky. There’s also the problem of the birds becoming so familiar with humans that they lose their survival instincts. M_____ argued against this last point, saying that birds in urban areas were inevitably familiar with humans. (Should I tell you about the time I was waiting for a bus in the city, when I saw this woman grab a pigeon and stuff it into her bag? Well, that’s pretty much it, but I thought I was hallucinating. Was it turned into lice-infested pigeon broth? Ewww!) Anyway, perhaps I expressed myself a little too abruptly, and for that I was sorry, but on the issue of feeding birds bread, I remain unmoved. I worry about the ibis I see on campus. They have long elegant beaks, designed for dipping into the burrows of subterranean creatures and instead they use them to flick up discarded chips, cold and congealed with the animal fat they were fried in, and over-processed hamburger buns saturated in tomato sauce.
I resisted telling the bread woman off, and made a mental note to exercise precautions when passing through plover territory. I’m hopeful that I won’t have to stop going that way entirely, unlike the stretch of H____ Street between R____ H____ and P______, where I was dive bombed by magpies on my way back home from the doctor’s. There is no easy alternative to the skinny path down the hill. I had to run down it like a mad woman, screaming at it to go away and flailing my arms in the air to stop the magpie from drawing blood, which it was intent on doing. Then there was the time when I was afraid to hang out my washing because a family of myna birds took to telling me off and smacking me up the side of the head with their beaks... Help.