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.