Every time we hear them there’s a quickening. Each time we see them it’s the same – a stopping, a quick in-breath, an alert excitement. What is it? Where is it? Even though I grew up with them (who notices birds as a teenager?) I find them exotic. And for Don, from the north of England, they are even more exotic. We are always on the lookout.

Australian birds are spectacular. There are nearly 60 different species of parrots alone. Almost all of them brightly coloured (not boring old black or brown like you mostly find in Canada where we live, or England) so there’s a lot to get our attention. Australia has one of the most diverse and abundant bird populations in the world, with more than 850 endemic and migratory species, and a higher diversity of parrots than anywhere else in the world.

It also has two of the largest – and quirkiest – flightless birds, the cassowary and the emu, though we don’t see any of them.

Who doesn’t love a brightly coloured parrot? Like this Crimson Rosella, all red and blue like the flag of Liechtenstein, or Haiti,

or this pretty Eastern Rosella,

or a Red-rumped Parrot,

or a whole tumbling flock of them disturbed while they’re feeding on seeds from weeds. These are not your common-or-garden sparrows.

December last year through February this year we are in Canberra, my Aussie hometown; it’s the first time I’m with all my siblings in eight years. Almost every day while we are there, Don and I go hiking up on Red Hill, one of Canberra’s many Nature Parks. From the moment we leave the house we’re alert for them. Often we hear them, a kind whistling-chattering-twittering, the noise that most species of parrots make, and then we immediately stop, looking around, craning our necks. Where is it? If we’re lucky we’ll spot it somewhere up above.

Sometimes it’s the loud screeching of cockatoos flying overhead that gets our attention. And it really is a screech. There’s nothing delicate about the noise cockatoos in the wild make, especially while they’re flying.

I’ll share more about cockatoos, but first I want to talk about Bin Chickens. The name comes from the indiscriminate scavenging of the Australian White Ibis. They have taken over. Even as their natural habitat shrinks, with formidable adaptability they are establishing colonies in the cities, and discovering a new fast-food diet. Judging by the numbers they thrive on it. There are an estimated 90,000 ibises in the Sydney area alone, twice as many as in their natural inland habitat, and on our two brief trips there during our Canberra visit I have no reason to doubt this number. They are everywhere! They have been known to snatch the food from your hands, and although many consider them a pest, to others they have attained cult-hero status, the epitome of the “Aussie battler”.

Our experience in Canberra however, is quite different. They haven’t taken over, probably due to the extensive natural bush available to them throughout the city. My sister’s house backs onto a golf course and it’s while strolling there that we see them, foraging on the greens, looking prehistoric with those big feet, bald heads, and long beaks.

Perched above in a tree they dance to keep balance,

but flying overhead they are all streamlined graceful elegance and soaring beauty.

Now back to cockatoos. Not much elegance here, but talk about pushy! We often see them when we’re out hiking, flying overhead, always screeching, but the best place is at the bird feeder and in the trees out back. One day I see a pair of beautiful rainbow lorikeets alit in a tree and waiting to feed. They’re smaller parrots and the cockys chase them away pretty quickly. The cockys are big and loud and aggressive. I’m the boss of the bird feeder!

They’re boss, that is, until the corellas come along. Ain’t nobody messing with this guy.

Galahs form permanent pair bonds. I see two of them one day, on a bare branch in a gum tree, sitting so close they’re touching, their heads bowed towards each other, their connection tangible, a tender moment. I don’t have my camera with me so I take a photo in my mind. I can still see them: two pink breasted birds leaning in to one another.

I do have my camera when one lands in the tree out back,

and when a pair come to drink.

A rhyme from childhood:
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry merry king of the bush is he
Laugh kookaburra
Laugh kookaburra
Gay your life must be.

Kookaburra sits on the electric wire
If he’s not careful he’ll catch on fire
Cry kookaburra
Cry kookaburra
Sad your life must be.

A kookaburra in the rain in Sydney.

We don’t see any in Canberra but we hear them frequently. I can imitate the laugh of a kookaburra pretty well. It starts softly, a stuttering cackle, and then gets louder, and louder, and louder. Nothing speaks to me of Australia so much as the shouting cackling laugh of the kookaburra. Except the warbling of mangoes magpies. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

It takes me a while to register the whistling sound. Finally I get it. Every time a punk bird takes off in flight there’s a marked whistling sound. Getting all scientific, it’s produced by the air passing over a modified primary feather on the wing, whatever that means. Anyway we see them quite often. We call then punk birds because to their hairdo, but they’re really Crested Pigeons, soft grey with pink shoulders.

There are always Australian Wood Ducks out on the golf course. A very wet spring has the water features almost overflowing so it’s bringing the water birds like the ibis, and a White-faced Heron,

and lots of ducks,

One of them is off on a big adventure!

There are so many colourful birds in Australia that I suppose I’ll let Canada have one. Canada definitely wins the wood duck colourful plumage award.

This little honeyeater is the Noisy Miner. Perched on the back of a chair in one of Canberra’s many garden cafés, it’s hoping for a handout.

Small is definitely mighty with these birds – they’re so aggressive and territorial they’ll even attack hawks and kookaburras – successfully. Stay outa my space!

In the “branches” of a yellow outdoor umbrella, at the café at the National Museum, a Noisy Miner has made a nest. Someone (Museum staff?) at some point could see the nest was a bit precarious so they taped up the bottom of it. And now there are two hungry chicks squawking for food. Sweet.

We see a tiny Fairy Wren (mainly blue) and a jet black red-billed swan hiding under a willow tree in the Jerrabomberra Wetlands. What we don’t see are King Parrots, the ones with a fiery red-orange breast and head, and dark green wings, and overall there seem to be fewer birds than when I was last there. The recent bushfire crisis was one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history. From June 2019 to February 2020 fires raged across Australia, and apart from the devastating affects on the people, uprooting families, and claiming lives, the fires killed or displaced nearly three billion animals. Three billion, including an estimated 180 million birds. It’s no wonder we don’t see as many as on previous visits.

But we do see magpies. And hear them. I talked about the (mostly) boring black and brown birds we see at home, well magpies are pretty boring black-and-white, but what they lack in colour they sure make up for in song, a sweet lyrical carolling that is ever-present; not a day goes by without their multi-octave flute-like warbling echoing throughout the neighbourhood. They are also fiercely territorial, so you’d better not be caught near a nest in the spring. I’ve been dive-bombed once and it’s not fun. Run!


And bath time playful.

And the sweetest song you’ve ever heard.

Tangentially, Australia has the best mangoes. Huge. Juicy. Sweet. Did I mention huge? Nearing the end of our visit I was thinking how much I was going to miss the mangoes, and the warbling of magpies. When I said as much to my sisters what came out of my mouth was I’m going to miss the warbling of mangoes. And I do.

Next post: Lights On The Lake – Canberra’s Australia/Invasion Day celebrations

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2023.