For 20 years after building our hilltop home, we carefully refrained from feeding the wildlife which shared their rainforest land with us. The accepted wisdom warned that doing so would make the crazy creatures dependent on handouts.
That is a little like saying that if all of the fast food take-away stores should shut, the human population would starve, knowing no alternative methods of finding sustenance. Still, we assumed Melbourne Wildlife Removal knew best and so we followed their advice until a hard drought struck, three years back. Years of abundance had encouraged our regional Kookaburra family to breed to the maximum. Now the parents, and their two helpers in the prior season, faced increasing four new offspring in a time of scarcity.
Notice: Kookaburras practise a’nursemaid’ method of caring for the young. Two of the offspring from the previous season stay to help increase the new nestlings, while some excess offspring are chased off to discover new land for themselves. This co-operative strategy, though infrequent elsewhere on the planet, is common to a lot of species of birds indigenous to Australia.
So, my Bloke chose our local lot needed a little helping hand. They soon learned the Bloke’s program and by 4:30pm could be lined up along a tree branch overlooking the deck where he feeds them. Always, one bird would be missing from the line-up. I figured this was a lookout, because as the Bloke’s car entered the driveway, the tardy one could join the group in the tree, setting off a raucous cackle of greeting from them all. Perhaps it was just their way of saying:’Hey, hurry up with the dinner!’
From the early days, we would spread the meat on the brick paving around the swimming pool, sometimes throwing pieces to see admiration as the birds deftly caught them in mid-air. Every piece was held securely in their great, blade-like beaks and thoroughly bashed against the floor in their normal custom, before being swallowed. All this noisy activity attracted the attention of our black cat, who insisted on watching the afternoon entertainment from a ring-side chair only a few feet away. He never made any move to frighten the birds. In any case, with wings for a quick getaway and fully armed with those formidable beaks, they made a goal he was not keen to engage.
For their part, the birds grew so disdainful that they would perch in the rafters right over the cat as he sunned himself on the deck in the mornings. Eventually, the birds gave the game up and went back to taking their morning baths in the pool with barely a glance at the kitty. After a long and joyful life, having been rescued from misery as an abandoned town stray, our kitty companion died this past year. Now the Kookaburras, and 29 other species of indigenous and immigrant birds, have our backyard to themselves.
The juvenile birds stay wisely wary of us humans at feeding time, but the parent birds will take meat from our fingers. This practice was initiated by the old Mama bird, who’s a very outgoing character and always first down for a feed. She’ll even ignore meat laid out on the sawhorse’perches’ my Bloke set up, to take her servings directly from his hand.
Note: How can you tell the girls from the boys?
And have our Kookaburras fallen into feckless ways since we began providing this free bounty? Here are a couple of illustrations to prove that point:while awaiting their day steaks, one after another of those birds will swoop down to skewer a fat grub amongst the grasses. They never gorge on the meat, but fly back to the trees when they have had what my grandma used to call’an elegant sufficiency,’ leaving us to eliminate the surplus.
One day The Bloke was late coming home and a male flew away in the tree, apparently too hungry to wait. For a few minutes, he pitched and re-caught the nestling, systematically crushing its bones, then swallowed it whole, head first. One year, our swimming pool had re-lining and the emptied space, heated by the morning sun, proved irresistible to the local population of lizards and skinks. They left a tasty feast for the Kookaburras, which cleaned up a swag of these daily. 1 casualty caused me personal despair.
This was a skink of gigantic size which for several years had patrolled a territory around my studio. It had pulled me from my work one day, once I heard unusual splashing noises and found that the poor critter from the pool. All its efforts to climb out were useless and the cold water soon rendered it nearly comatose. With the help of a plastic leaf scoop, I eventually managed to land it on the deck, where it sagged until the sunshine warmed it. 1 startled look at me, and it turned out to the bushes. As the Kookaburras reduced the smaller lizards lounging in the pool that was emptied, the huge skink needed to range further afield for this favorite item of its diet and in an incautious moment of exposure, the big birds had him for breakfast.
I think it’s clear that our’interference’ from the daily life of the local Kookaburras has done them no harm. They are resourceful creatures and while they might be briefly disappointed if we ceased our largesse, they do not really need us. It is we who would deeply miss our everyday communion with these crazy but friendly fellow creatures.