For the seagulls of Australia, the arrival of Europeans was an unpleasant experience. As Cook’s Endeavor made its way along the east coast in 1770, the crew were forced to supplement their dwindling provisions by shooting and eating the birds. Sir Joseph Banks wrote; Sea gulls… which are reccond [sic] bad from their trainy (a reference to ‘train’ oil, obtained down from whale blubber) or fishy taste were to us an agreeable food, we did not at all taste the rankness, which no doubt has been and possibly will again be highly nauseous to us whenever we have plenty of Beef and mutton &c.
As Banks’ predicted, the seagull was saved by the rankness of its flesh. In the infant colony, First Fleeters quickly adopted the philosophy expressed years later by German nonsense poet Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) in his poem The Seagulls (translated by Karl F. Ross).
I never shoot a seagull dead;
Their lives I do not take.
I like to feed them gingerbread
And bits of raisin-cake.
Life has improved so much for Sydney’s gulls that many have evolved into indolent sports addicts. They can often be seen studying the form at Randwick racecourse, or munching pie crusts and cold chips at football matches.
On June 6 1999 a capacity flock arrived at the SCG to witness Aussie Rule’s player ‘Plugger’ Lockett kick his record breaking 1,300th goal. It is said that the birds’ harsh calls miraculously transformed to melodious caroling as they joined the crowd in singing; ‘There’s only one Tony Lockett!’ However, they are primarily cricket fans. They spend long, balmy days at test matches, sipping dregs of beer until forced to make the journey home by bus and ferry rather than by air. Click HERE to see how dangerous this can be!
According to urban mythology, Sydney’s sacred ibis are a scary mutation of the seagull. The story goes that over succeeding generations, one strain became larger, more athletic, and far more aggressive.
Instead of lolling about at the SCG, ibis roam Hyde Park and the Botanic Gardens, mugging defenceless tourists. Some say the bend in their beaks is the result of constant entanglements with the straps of Nikon cameras. Bizarrely, those beaks have evolved to a length of about six inches – long enough to reach the bottom of a McDonalds’ chip carton.
Some individuals have even been known to make ‘cold calls’ on residents, demanding a handout.
The evolutionary process has also affected the birds’ call. Apart from uttering a low grunt when annoyed, they have learned to be silent, which allows them to sneak up on unwary picnickers.
If ibis are the sinister hoods of the CBD, sulphur crested cockatoos are the mindless vandals of the suburbs. They career into backyards; their bright yellow crests unnervingly similar to the colour patches worn by American street gangs.
They wrench citrus fruit from trees, pull out seedlings, and reduce wooden window sills to sawdust just for the hell of it Pack leaders have even been known to show off by stealing underwear from clothes-lines, taking off with a pair of knickers hanging from a scaly foot. Thank God they don’t dive-bomb humans as magpies do, or Sydney schoolchildren would be forced to protect themselves with motorcycle helmets instead of ice-cream cartons. However, they are great characters. Click Here for an affectionate tribute to them.
Unfortunately, Sydney’s now has a huge population of Indian Mynas. These birds were introduced as ‘migrant labour’, brought from India during the 1880’s to control locusts in the outback. Unfortunately the birds hankered after human contact and crept back to the city. These days they lower the tone of smart coffee shops ; hanging around in their scruffy brown overcoats scavenging for crumbs. Their heads are unattractively flat, like 19th century muffin men.
One café owner told me they remind her of brown paper bags, and that she has an overwhelming urge to sweep them up. They squabble constantly amongst themselves and breed prolifically in untidy nests. However, they are street-wise survivors and when Mosman Council funded an expensive eradication scheme a few years ago it was a complete failure.
Indian Mynas are not to be confused with the aptly named Noisy Miner, a feisty Australian native which never shuts up. This contrary bird builds its nest with little regard for privacy, then attacks innocent by-passers with all the aggression of a trained guard dog. At the State Library they provide them with food, to prevent the cafe’s outside diners being harassed.
At the other end of the scale, the sweet natured and gorgeously dressed rainbow lorikeets are Sydney’s pampered darlings.
Lured to inner-city balconies during Sunday brunch, they happily perch on human hands to nibble croissant crumbs and sip cappuccino. They are disarmingly curious. If windows are left slightly open they will bend over backwards and sashay under them like Caribbean limbo dancers.
And so, as dusk descends, we leave our city’s feathered friends; feisty, friendly, much loved.
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