Walking with the birds

When you walk the bush paths of Canberra you are never alone. Even in the quietest spot you will see a slight movement from the corner of your eye, something flitting just beyond the edge of your vision. A leaf will stir, there will be a scurry in the trees, a muted rattle or a rapid whispered clucking. Sometimes you get the feathered equivalent of a stampede, a sudden rush of squawks, and beating wings and wild shrieks. Sometimes you may hear the solitary, mad cackle of a kookaburra, taken up by the mocking echo of half a dozen others.

Here are just a few of the show-offs, eccentrics and recluses you are pretty sure to meet when you’re out walking.

Galahs grazing

Galahs. These are probably the most common parrot you will see along the walking paths of Canberra. Galahs are notable for their unique and beautiful pastel-coloured plumage. They have pink breasts, necks and faces, but light grey wings and tails. They wear a white cap on their heads. They are the clowns of Canberra back yards. Sometimes they will show off, hanging upside down from a power line or a clothes line. Occasionally… just to impress you more, they will release one foot and nonchalantly hang clasping the line with the other claw. They like to have rowdy arguments about nothing, like two drunks standing side-by-side, pumping and puffing and squawking at each other. Like cockatoos, galahs also like to graze. Sometimes you see large flocks of them combing the grass beside the major thoroughfares of Canberra, unconcerned by passing traffic (but with the odd careless one squashed and smashed on the asphalt of the road).

Magpies. These are meat-eaters who will gather over road-kill like mini vultures, jabbing and plucking and scattering when cars pass. They speak to one another in a beautiful, mysterious language. They throw back their heads and warble, quite loud and very musically, in three- or four-second bursts, like sentences.

Wild magpies demanding a handout

They are beady-eyed intellectuals, inquisitive, and largely unafraid of humans. They stride over lawns, stopping from time to time with tilted heads as if listening. Apparently they can hear insects – even worms – moving in the earth beneath them. Their plumage is basically black with a saddle of white on the backs of their necks and streaks of white in their wings and tail. They have good memories. If you give them a handout of raw mince they will never forget your generosity. Whenever they see you they will come gliding and running, demanding another handout, even if months have passed since the first.

Always in pairs: the common rosella

Rosellas. These are smallish parrots with plumage of brightly contrasting red and blue. Young rosellas also have green plumage. Rosellas are very timid but endearing, because they always appear in faithful pairs, presumably male and female. They look after each other.

Sometimes one will stand guard high in a tree while the other drinks. Then they will reverse roles before racing off. They have a unique call, a thin tweet that starts high, jumps down one octave, then back up an octave and quickly down one octave again: deedadeeda.

An army marches on its stomach: cockatoos bulking up in a Canberra park

Sulphur-crested cockatoos. These are the vandals and loud-mouth angry-boys of the bush. They are gregarious birds with a hoarse, raucous, grating call. They get very excited at dawn and sundown, swooping and squabbling in tribe-like clusters. If the spirit takes them, they will settle in certain trees and tear them to pieces, littering the ground with twigs and shredded leaves. They like to graze like cows, but when they find a tasty seed they lift it to their beaks in claws that operate like a robotic hand. They disguise their violent impulses beneath a habit of spotless white plumage. The yellow plume on their heads can stand up like an open fan and they look around like indignant, offended teenagers with yellow mohawk haircuts.

Black Swans. These proud, beautiful birds revel in their status as exceptions to the orthodoxy that “swans are white”. But they also have bright red beaks and usually a flash of white at the base of the tail. They are family birds. They dote on their children and cruise the lake shores showing them off.

Watching the walkers: black swans in Canberra’s Lake Burley-Griffin

The cygnets grow up with grey plumage and only gradually change to black when they are quite big. Swans are curious about humans but are easily irritated by them. Sometimes they will heave themselves out of the water and approach you with a menacing cobra-like sway of the head. If that happens it’s usually advisable to retreat.

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