TR Taronga Zoo field report #1

Taronga Zoo, the Blue Mountains aviary, April 22, 2021

This report covers visits taken place on January 7 (with Zoe), February 3 (with Zoe), April 2 (on my own), and April 22 (with Zoe), 2021. I also visited Taronga Zoo on May 15, but being with family I did not visit the regent honeyeaters. This report is an attempt to respond to the first task in Christena Nippert-Eng’s book, Watching Closely (Oxford University Press, 2015). On rereading the report it is more of a reflection on the visits than a field report. Labeling it as #1 should not be interpreted that a second one is coming. It may come. It may not.

For the first visit in January we had questions to the birds that we didn’t really ask in the end, however I have sat with the questions during subsequent visits. These include:

  • what is a home?
  • what is a future?
  • what is the lesson today?
  • what do you worry about?
  • what brings you joy?
  • what are you singing about?
  • how is your family?
  • how are you today? [We moved these last two questions to the start so as not to be appear rude.]

I find shared visits more complex as there is a need to be with another human as well as be with the birds, so it is important to schedule solo visits alongside the shared visits. Both types of visits are critical to the project. The shared experiences have been invaluable, as have the conversations that have followed – while the solo visits afford a different way to be with the birds. It’s almost like to be with the birds fully (as much as a non-avian being can) requires not speaking in human language. I need to speak about this with Zoe; her experience may well be different. It may also be that because birdwatching has mostly been a solitary activity for me, there is a habit of solitude that comes more easily.

There were some surprises during the first visit. Only four pairs of regent honeyeaters at the zoo breed each year, which seems a missed opportunity (to me, who doesn’t know anything about this) given that there are several dozen birds at the zoo. The small number is to do with resources, mainly space and staff. Releases occur every two years, and they coincide with times of ample flowering, to ensure the released birds have access to plentiful food. The birds are monitored for 3-4 months after release. 

The first visit left me with a deeper sense of the birds’ precarity. The captive breeding program will not save the birds unless we address the systemic issues that have led to the loss of the species’ habitat. Releasing captive-bred birds and planting trees do not stop logging. Tree planting does not replace old-growth forest. There is more research for us to do to understand what habitat loss looks like currently and what drives it, and if its root causes are something we can as designers influence. 

My longest visit and most copious notes are from April 2, 2021. I spent over an hour by myself in the aviary, being mistaken for staff a number of times. A question I wrote during the visit: “In an average day, how many zoo visitors are pooped on by one of Australia’s most endangered birds?” What I recall from the visit seven weeks later, and what is also in the notes, is the prolific singing of the male lyre bird in his own adjacent, inaccessible enclosure. I assume he’s there so people don’t try to pluck his feathers; I don’t know this and should probably ask someone at the zoo. Someone called the lyrebird “a young peacock” and he must have heard them because shortly thereafter he incorporated peacock screams into his song. That was followed by, aptly, some kookaburra laughter, and a computer game sound that was uncannily familiar that I yet could not place or identify. He seems to have a sense of humour.

The regent honeyeater is a beautiful bird. Not always photogenic: sometimes all you see in photos is a warty-faced honeysucker. In flight, however, when the sun hits the bird, he is the most magnificent explosion of gold. On this visit the birds seemed more active than on previous visits, maybe because it was slightly cooler and much busier at the zoo, being Easter weekend. I noted that the birds seemed to be watching me as much as I was watching them. 

Just sitting quietly is important. On previous visits I had seen the signs claiming there was a rock wallaby in the enclosure and I thought the signs were outdated and the wallaby gone. This time I watched him, and he me, for long periods of time. Many people simply missed him, even when they were a metre apart. I guess he shows himself when he wants to, to whom he wants to. I’m also struck by how harried people seem: they’ve come to the zoo but they don’t have the time or the patience to see what is there. They miss the singing lyrebird, they miss the rock wallaby. Perhaps this is a relief to the residents.

There were moments I felt surrounded by the regent honeyeaters. Other times I could not locate a single one. It’s as if they exist and they don’t. That’s perhaps true of their lives in the wild, being nomadic. I can imagine them, once upon a time, being abundant at a time of a woodland bloom, and then, gone once the flowering is done. This continent has a lot of wanderers like that. When the inland salt lakes fill up sometimes once in two decades, thousands of pelicans and stilts and other birds somehow know to turn up and make the most of the abundant food, that then vanishes and so do the birds. Scientists wonder how the birds know, and I wonder how much the scientists listen to the country, smell the country, feel the country. I have no doubt that there are signs that can be read; it is just that we colonisers are often quite illiterate on this continent. We try to ‘read’ it and understand it like it’s Europe, even two centuries later.

During the visit I ask myself – it is written in my notes – how long should I stay? Of course any assigned time is arbitrary; there is not enough time to get to know the birds. Or for them to get to know us. I have noted that I feel that the masked lapwing, a seemingly sorrowful character, knows me by now. I want to ask someone the lapwing’s sex so I can call them by the right pronoun. ‘It’ seems too distant now, given the hours we have sat together. I refer to him as ‘he’ in my notebook but I am not at all convinced he’s a he. People don’t seem to appreciate him much. Kids chase him and he’s quite gracious and patient with them. Adults call him a “bloody plover” and say things like, “they are noisy buggers” and “they attack you when they have babies”. Defending one’s child interpreted as an attack and not noticing that – who are we? We barely notice when we claim a space as our own when in fact much of the time outside of our homes we are visitors in many birds’ and other species’ homes. During that visit the gang-gang cockatoos seemed to have quietly followed me. One of the last things I hear is someone say: “Those honeyeaters are gorgeous.” Indeed they are. 

During a shared visit on Earth Day I return to an earlier question I had written down: is it possible to identify individual regent honeyeaters based on plumage patterns? Somehow each bird seems unique but I can’t point out how. The differences in the plumage of individual feral pigeons are easy; the differences in the belly plumage patterns of the lesser white-fronted goose are more difficult to describe. The regent honeyeater is similar: I have a hunch that each is different but because they are never still long enough, this is difficult to ascertain. 

On this visit I note the flash of gold in the sun: the birds are like fireworks when they fly in the sun. It also strikes me that they are robust. As a species, because we have pushed them to the brink of extinction, they are precarious. But each of these birds is energetic, strong, full of vitality. We ought to give these avian fireworks a chance. 

Birds of Mallacoota by Nick Ritar

Following the New Year’s Eve bushfire that forced most of Mallacoota’s residents on its beach, Nick Ritar of Milkwood, a permaculture smallholding, documented some of the avian victims on January 2, 2020. The images are posted here with Nick’s permission. Thank you, Nick, for documenting this event so that we can all bear witness. Nick’s original Instagram post is here. The Australian fires are a tragedy for all life on the planet, including us humans. While fire is an annual part of Australia’s ecosystems, the scope of the current fires is unprecedented, exacerbated by anthropogenic global warming.

It is no comfort that the species documented here are relatively common or at least not at risk of imminent extinction. More than a billion mammals, birds and reptiles are estimated to have died in the fires so far since September. Will Peischel writes for Mother Jones on the complexity of that estimation. For the animals that remain, there is often little food or water. As Birdlife reports, Eastern Bristlebird, Dasyornis brachypterus (Endangered), and Regent Honeyeater, Anthochaera phrygia (Critically Endangered), are two species at immediate peril because of the fires. It is frustrating; I have followed the recovery efforts for the Regent Honeyeater in recent years, and the fires are likely a significant setback. Coming weeks and months will reveal the scope of the loss.

Birdlife poignantly states: “While unprecedented, these fires were predicted. In 2008, the Governments of Australia’s Federation commissioned a report by Professor Ross Garnaut to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia. The Garnaut report predicted that Australia’s bushfire seasons would progressively lengthen and generally be more intense, and that the impacts would be observable by 2020. The predictions of Garnaut and many other climate scientists have proved right.” Some from the climate denial lobby have claimed that arson is to blame for the fires; this ABC article debunks that. Drawing from conversations with family and friends, I suspect that for some people the scope of climate breakdown and the fact that it is happening now, not in some abstract future, is too much to bear and the denial is a form of mental self-protection. For example, some people I have spoken with who recall the brief cooling after the 1991 Pinatubo eruption, think that another or several volcanic eruptions will somehow undo all of the warming we are already locked into. For many, however, the denial is about protecting self-interest, certainly financially and perhaps now even morally. I have no doubt that there will be a time soon enough when we will successfully prosecute individuals, corporations and perhaps even governments that willfully delayed actions to reduce carbon emissions and/or spread misinformation and doubt for the same reason. Denial of climate change is in part an attempt to postpone the arrival of that time.

These are some of the images of our time. Bear witness and remember that every living being on Earth is a relative.

Common Bronzewing

Gang-gang Cockatoo

Kookaburra

New Holland Honeyeater

Rainbow Lorikeet

Silvereye

Spotted Dove

Topknot Pigeon

Whipbird

 

Pentti Linkola

Scots pine snag, Skatanniemi, Helsinki, July 2019. Photograph by Timo Rissanen

Pentti Linkola is something of a conscience for Finland and for humanity. His ideas are radical, often shocking and sometimes dangerous. Yet I’ve shared some of his thoughts in moments, as a visceral reaction to the persistent destruction of the biosphere that I have witnessed, and contributed to, throughout my life. While a lot of his thinking resonates and inspires, I do not share his nationalistic thoughts. In the face of a planetary emergency we ought to question the ongoing usefulness of a nation state. This is a time for all humanity, for one humanity. When we accept the emergency, the viability of national borders begins to crumble. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about becoming indigenous to place, a more productive way for us to simultaneously consider our individual and collective place in the world, though this must be a robustly decolonised practice. The way Linkola voices the losses of these times and is able to see connections most of us look away from, either from ignorance or discomfort, is familiar to me. The forests and lakes he writes and speaks of, that he lives among, are familiar to me: Finnish forest is where I experience something I might begin to describe as indigeneity. Though Finland hasn’t been home for 24 years, drop me in a Finnish forest and I can tell you the month of the year by observing the presences and absences, and the movements and the sounds around me.

Otto von Busch shared the following clip of Linkola’s account of a profound loss. I identify with it because many of the woods of my childhood no longer exist. The forest next to my school, where friends and I discovered a pig skeleton in second grade, has been replaced by a kindergarten and houses with perfectly manicured yards. I wonder if the spring we also discovered, magically bubbling with clean, cool water out of the earth, is still there? Through the satellite view on Google Maps I can see that the ditch where frogs spawned each spring is covered by a parking lot. Where do they spawn now?

At our summer house, most of the spruce woods, dark and heavy trees that had grown since at least the 19th century, have been clear-cut during my lifetime. There was one particularly gloomy spot of dense moss understory cradled by massive spruce that I keep forgetting hasn’t existed for 25 years. Each summer when we get to that spot I find myself momentarily surprised after the bend in the road, that instead of being dwarfed by majestic elders, their branches making a tunnel out of the narrow road, we come to a spot of ten-metre high regrowth, half my age. The memory of what once was is stubbornly vivid. Some years ago I had a dream that I was there, chatting with my late mum among the giant spruce. Waking up was a harsh reminder that both the trees and she were long gone. Along with others. I cannot recall how long it has been since I saw a Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. (I much prefer the Finnish name, pohjantikka.) Maybe they are still there, clinging on to a memory, scattered across the few remaining patches of old-growth forest. Or maybe they went north where I pretend the forests are less intensively managed. During each visit I hope to see or hear one.

It would be intellectually lazy to outright dismiss a radical thinker like Linkola. Criticality is necessary and we ought to ditch whatever ideas we find destructive. As Linkola’s account above shows, our elders hold memories we cannot have, because of what we have destroyed in the name of progress and development. While we cannot have Linkola’s memories we can learn from them, to ensure that at least some of our memories continue to manifest in reality, in thriving, balanced ecosystems that also include us.

Patch of forest in Lauttasaari, Helsinki, July 2019. Photograph by Timo Rissanen

 

Braiding Sweetgrass

Patch of young growth, Averill Park NY, November 2019

“Weep! Weep! calls a toad from the water’s edge. And I do. If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again.”

A friend and colleague recommended Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass a few months ago. It has been my audiobook companion while cross-stitching, and I’m now coming to an end. And many beginnings, it is clear. Kimmerer incisively braids together her indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge, all the while acknowledging directly the deep losses brought with invasion, genocide, extermination, “progress”. Like in this project, grief is always present, inseparable from love. I have nothing to add to Kimmerer’s call above. Read the book, mourn the losses and then get to loving the world back to wholeness again.

Remembering buntings, forgetting buntings

Ortolan Bunting, male. Drawing by Wilhelm von Wright (1810 – 1887). Scanned from Svenska fåglar, efter naturen och på sten ritade 2nd ed. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emberiza_hortulana_2.jpg

Ortolan Bunting, female. Drawing by Wilhelm von Wright (1810 – 1887). Scanned from Svenska fåglar, efter naturen och på sten ritade 2nd ed. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ortolan_bunting#/media/File:Emberiza_hortulana_1.jpg

The Ortolan Bunting and Yellow-breasted Bunting were plentiful during the first decade of my childhood. (I was born in 1975.) The latter was never common in Finland; the country was on the edge of its distribution, but it was an abundant birds throughout its range across northern Eurasia. Well, no more. Yellow-breasted Buntings are no longer seen in Finland every year and more than a decade has passed since the last documented breeding. The Finnish population of Ortolan Bunting has declined 99% in my lifetime. It is a bird I remember from my childhood, now at risk of vanishing completely from Finland within a decade or two. Both birds are caught in large quantities and eaten; the Yellow-breasted in its wintering grounds in China, the Ortolan during migration through the Mediterranean. Eating an Ortolan is an ignominious tradition in France. While habitat loss due to changes in farming is also impacting the Ortolan, hunting it does not help. I can’t help but ask: is eating these birds out of existence worth it? We did it with the Passenger Pigeon and then repeated it with the Eskimo Curlew: we replaced them with more of us.

Change in distribution of the Ortolan Bunting in Finland between the Bird Atlas of 1974-79 and 2006-10. Source: http://atlas3.lintuatlas.fi/tulokset/laji/peltosirkku

Change in distribution of the Yellow-breasted Bunting in Finland between the Bird Atlas of 1974-79 and 2006-10. Source: http://atlas3.lintuatlas.fi/tulokset/laji/kultasirkku

Will I be the last generation of Finns who remembers the Ortolan Bunting from their childhood? Xeno-canto allows me to remember the soundscape of my younger years but once I’m gone, will we care about another species if we no longer remember it? This question has been coming up for me a lot. It is not just species we are losing but we are losing the individual and collective memories of them. To borrow from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, the Ortolan and Yellow-breasted Bunting are becoming ghosts in the Finnish landscape, and in Finnish memory. We are ghost-makers. And yet, the remarkable recoveries of the Laysan Duck and the Kakapo, two of countless island specialists, reminds us that we are effective avian ghostbusters when we choose to be.