The challenge was to pick a word. Any word.
Many came to mind. Words that sparked narratives that quickly became pieces about the pandemic. I really didn’t want to write about COVID-19. As much as I resisted, all words led there eventually. Even the word soar. So be it.
I settled on soar because of the birds. The birds I see and hear on my (almost) daily walks. The ones I hear outside my window, and the ones that live at my place. The company of birds has helped me during the pandemic. I am also aware that I’m privileged to be able to spend time in their company. I live in a state that has not really experienced lockdown; in a quiet community on the suburban/rural fringe, nestled between ocean, scrub and farmland. A place that has an abundance of birds. It may be naive of me, but I like to imagine birds also being a source of comfort for others. Maybe while enduring extended lockdowns in built-up locations people were able to catch a glimpse of sky, a nearby tree swaying in the breeze, the heady scent of jasmine—and the sight and sounds of birds.
Few sounds are as uplifting as birdsong. Recently I’ve been taking more notice. And, at the same time, realised I’ve been drifting further away from human sounds. Initially not by choice. I’ve been working from home for years, removing myself from the rat race. And when verbal and visual communication moved online during the pandemic, I didn’t follow. Not having owned a television for many years, I wasn’t attracted to filling the void with streaming, podcasts or other digital media. Not even radio. I keep the sound turned off on my phone and the few social media platforms I still use. And where I live is relatively quiet. Even so, it took me a while to notice the absence of the once-familiar sounds of hustle and bustle. Then I welcomed the solace found in the sounds of birds, wind in trees and ocean waves breaking on the nearby shore.
This slow retreat from the noisy clatter of modernity started before the pandemic, but my embracing of it is more recent. It’s the opposite direction I had planned to be heading. In late 2019 I’d decided to get out more. Meet new people, have new experiences.
I began a higher degree by research at an interstate university. And as 2020 rolled in, I was attending writers events and getting ready for the release of my novel. Dreams were finally coming true. I was spreading my wings, ready to soar. And then the world changed. For everyone, everywhere.
So instead of flying, I walked. Rediscovering my neighbourhood, with my dogs or alone, I was content in a two-kilometre bubble: sunsets on beaches, ocean vistas from cliff tops, exploring mysterious copses at dusk, enjoying wetlands under full moons, and venturing into the scrub on warm afternoons. Renewing my relationship with nature helped me to think. And movement helped the thought process. I plotted stories. Worked on my master’s thesis. Reflected on the world. I breathed out stress, and breathed in the aromas of trees and ocean. And the more I walked, the more I noticed the birds.
In 2020–21, when doing interviews for my second novel, Where the Fruit Falls, I was often asked about the birds. Until then, I hadn’t realised this book had a noticeable recurrence of birds. Birds are just part of my everyday. People wanted to know what the birds meant in my novel, and where did I learn about birds. I gave tepid responses about having always noticed them. I didn’t think anyone would believe me if I answered more truthfully: the birds taught me.
Of all the non-human others featured in my novel, birds make the most appearances. Right from the beginning, when we first meet Maeve and her granddaughter Brigid— her Birdie. It is Maeve who teaches Brigid the language of birds. However, although they are both attuned to birdsong, they don’t always hear the same tune:
Maeve raised her head seconds before the bird broke out in song. It was a cheeky tune, alluding to promised embraces and stolen hearts. At least it was to Maeve’s well-travelled ears.
Birdie didn’t hear the same tune. She heard spring blossoms and sun-warmed afternoons. And had a sudden longing to hide in the long grass and watch as wispy clouds made patterns in the blue.
This small songbird is soon revealed to be an uncharacteristic willy wagtail. A bird that pesters the whole family with its insistent song and dance. I’ll return to this little trouble-maker later. For now, the ravens demand attention. And ravens must always be heeded.
Ravens have long appeared in stories from around the world. Although these birds do not live on every continent, they are widespread. Ravens belong to the corvidae family, as do crows. Although found in many places on the southern continent, no Australian ravens (Corvus coronoides) live near me. Here there are little ravens (Corvus mellori). They are often mistaken for crows, but there are no crows here or anywhere near Adelaide.
The Little Raven has a slightly smaller beak than the Australian Raven, and is smaller overall. It’s the more sociable of the two, living in larger flocks and devoted to family. Their songs are different to each other, too. Like all corvids, both are highly intelligent and have been known to make their own tools.
In my novel it is the Australian raven that first makes an appearance. And the later appearances of ravens, in different locations, would either be them or the little raven. Perhaps even little crow (Corvus bennetti), if my fictional characters weren’t observant enough to know the difference. It can be quite hard to tell the six Australian corvids apart, except for that introduced, and not so splendid house crow (Corvus splendens).
The novel opens with Maeve reminiscing about her husband who, many decades ago, died of Spanish flu on the sea passage from Ireland. Maeve has late-stage glaucoma but can sense the ravens gathering in the apple trees just outside her cottage. Those, and that persistent songbird, have become familiar to Maeve, reminding her of both the past and future:
Before the tale of the little black-and- white bird can be told, other birds must be heralded. Three, to be precise. For a conspiracy of ravens had formed near the small cottage at the bottom of the garden. First one settled in the tall tree out the front of her grandmother’s cottage. Then a second. Maeve knew it wouldn’t be much longer before the third would appear, but she was not afraid. She was more than ready.
Ravens make another appearance later in the story, and both times it is to witness an end of life. Ravens are often associated with death or bad luck, and are even known as tricksters. Collective nouns for a group of ravens include a treachery, conspiracy or even unkindness. Not as bloodthirsty a title as a murder of crows, but I’m sure they’d much prefer being called a flock. Or just kin.
Ravens are one of many birds that I have always taken note of. Since a child, I’ve been fascinated with them. I’ll often see them on the side of roads, or even standing in the middle of country roads. I’m aware they are scavengers and roadkill is an easy meal for them. However, I still see meaning in their presence. It’s a reminder to slow down, take more notice of what’s around me, not to drive distracted or too fast. Because too often that’s what I’m doing just before I see ravens. So I slow down. And sometimes give them a nod of thanks as I pass by.
Many times I’ve seen ravens in trees as I leave funeral services. One—two—three. Always three witnesses in black. An unkindness of ravens showing kindness to those grieving. I don’t see them often when I’m walking, but there is a nearby place where a colony resides, in an area of the scrub that I refer to as the Valley of the Ravens. They perch on either side of the track, silently watching me as I walk past.
Before the third raven appears in the novel, Maeve gives her granddaughter a final lesson about birds. Brigid has always loved listening to her grandmother’s tales. It takes Brigid years to realise that her grandmother wasn’t right about everything, including these tales of birds. I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, let’s return to that insistent willy wagtail:
That look-at-me bird was annoying the whole family, so it came time for Granny to tell Brigid what that little bird was saying. Because Maeve knew the secret language of birds. She had learnt it from her grandmother, who had learnt it from her grandmother. And so on and so on, through a long line of apple-growing grandmothers. Maeve had discovered the local birds weren’t that much different from those in her homeland. And that is why Maeve knew the raven duo was waiting for the third to arrive … she needed to put aside thoughts of her gatherers for a while and have a much-needed talk with Brigid about the birds and the apples.
This small bird was a willy wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys). It can also be spelt willie wagtail. Some people know this bird as a gossiper. If it appears in your back yard, speak quietly as it’s probably eavesdropping. Or it could be wanting to tell you some news. This news is not always good, such as a death in the family.
Willy wagtail might make you laugh as it struts around, does a dance and shakes its tail feather, but it’s not to be trusted. Brigid soon learns this. And it is through the willy wagtail that she learns that the tales her grandmother brought to these shores don’t always apply to local birds. And those stories weren’t entirely relevant to Brigid. There was an obvious gap in her life where other stories should have been. Growing up, Brigid had no contact with her Aboriginal relatives as her father had died when she was a baby. Her mother and grandmother loved her dearly, but they failed her in many ways.
I don’t see willy wagtails in my yard anymore, perhaps because there’s no gossip to overhear. I do see them on my walks, especially in the local scrub. It is hard not to smile or laugh at them, as they sing and dance to catch my attention, but they’re also a reminder not to be a fool by speaking or thinking unfairly of others.
• • •
Other small birds, such as finches, make an appearance in the book. These appear just before the story becomes momentarily grim. By then Brigid has been traveling for years with her twin daughters, Maggie and Victoria (Tori). The trio have just stopped wandering through the inland of the continent, and are settling into a small worker’s cottage. Maggie, the less adventurous twin, wakes up on the first morning and stares in wonder at what’s outside the cottage. She ‘breathed in the aroma of nearby flowers, listened to the gentle swish of tree branches, and watched tiny birds fly overhead. She felt as if, maybe, everything would be all right.’
These tiny birds are finches. I’ve referred to them as a rainbow in the book, but they aren’t the colourful Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae). Those are now rare birds, found in parts of the Northern Territory and Queensland. The birds Maggie sees are more likely to be zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) or red-browed finch (Neochmia temporalis). I remember seeing large flocks of zebra finches in rural South Australia when I was a child, and being amazed at how many there were. I’d watch, enthralled. I don’t see many finches now.
A bird I no longer see in my neighbourhood, and which also makes an appearance in the novel, is the wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax). When the twins are adolescents, they find themselves traveling alone. It is then that an eagle becomes their guide and protector. It keeps them company for a year, as they:
… just kept following the eagle, which mostly followed the winding river. The eagle left them as they stood on a hill one evening at dusk, looking at the countless roads and buildings below them. That night, watching the city lights in wonderment, Victoria had decided it was time to leave the past behind. In the morning, she told Maggie that she wanted to be called Tori from now on.
To keep company with a wedge-tail eagle, even for a brief moment, is truly an experience. Years ago I’d see them in the nearby paddocks and hills. Always such a joy to watch. They still fly over but it’s become rare to see them. So whenever I get the chance to travel to areas they inhabit in larger numbers, I keep my eyes open.
A couple of years ago I was driving up to Uluru. Another job was coming to an end, and I was feeling a bit apprehensive about finding more work. I needed to take a few days off, get onto red-dirt country, and clear my mind. Doing this trip on the cheap meant sleeping on the back seat of my car. Thankfully Dodge sedans are roomy and I am short. During the day, I’d have CDs blaring, window down, belting out a song as I flew through open spaces. I stopped a few times to watch the eagles fly, or observe them eat carrion on the side of the road. One time I looked out the window and noticed an eagle flying beside my car. I slowed and it kept pace with me for quite a while, before soaring high. In that moment, I felt as if I could soar too. I still didn’t know where I was heading in life, but felt it would be okay. Many more birds make an appearance in the book. And some distant relatives to birds:
Tori noticed shadowy figures in the turbulent waters. Enormous flippers, slithery tails, long reptilian necks, teeth sharp as daggers. Big to gigantic aquatic creatures swam in this ancient sea. Tori took a step back from the shore as some of these shadows came closer, to swim in the shallows. A long beak, filled with sharp teeth, emerged. The beast flipped its head, revealing a large squid-like creature between its teeth. It opened its mouth wide and the prey disappeared down its gullet. It went to grab another, but a large reptilian bird swooped down, grabbing it before escaping the toothy-beaked water beast. Tori twitched in her sleep, reacting to this dream of carnage. Outside, the rain came down even harder, its sound penetrating her dreamscape.
Tori’s dream is based on a recurring nightmare of mine. As a child, I could never clearly ‘see’ what lurked under the water, but the dream was frightening and I’d often wake up screaming. Later I was fascinated by what may lurk underwater. Once I learnt about the ancient inland sea, and the prehistoric marine creatures that once inhabited it, images began to take shape. My recurring nightmare transitioned into a dream I looked forward to. Perhaps these large aquatic reptiles were Kronosaurus, Umoonasaurus demoscyllus and Platypterygius longmani. For the version of this dream in the novel, I added a flying creature. I didn’t know about Thapunngaka shawi until after I’d written the book. I like the thought of these creatures that once frightened me being scared by an actual dragon that also used to exist on this continent.
I have so many stories of birds from my past and present. Ones that don’t appear in my book, including those I see when walking on my local beaches, in the scrub and wetlands, and neighbourhood streets. Such as the birds of prey that make my heart soar every time. And I stop to watch them glide through the skies above me. Or watch them as they watch me from a high perch. The dainty nankeen kestrel (Falco cenchroides), the little falcon Australian hobby (Falco longipennis), brown goshawk (Accipiter fasciatus) and peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). Raptors really are my favourite of all the birds.
Walking in the local wetlands has helped me become better acquainted with water birds. My preferred time is dusk because, as the orchestra of frogs and crickets warms up, squads of Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) put on a spectacular precision sky-show, before settling in the tallest tree. Another bird I occasionally see at the local wetlands is the Australasian swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus), with its stunning combination of cobalt feathers and red beak. The dusky moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa) has a yellow-and-red beak, which looks dramatic against its shiny black feathers. The grey teal (Anas gracilis) and Pacific black duck (Anas superciliosa) are less dramatic, but I find watching them swim soothing.
And then there are birds of the night. Bush stone-curlew (Burhinus grallarius) has made me jump a few times in the dark, as they rush past. When I hear their eerie call, I know it’s way past time for me to still be out walking. Another local night bird, which I rarely see, is the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides). I didn’t even know they lived around here until a couple of years ago, when one gave me a fright in the dark. It had decided to drag me as I rode past on my motorbike. I won. Or perhaps it let me win.
• • •
I’m thankful to be living in an area where there are so many birds. Too many to mention here. I believe the past few years would have been harder to deal with without the sight and sounds of them. But I worry how many more species of birds will be lost because of the thoughtlessness of humans. Their existence cannot be separated from ours. What we do, or don’t do, has implications for them. Humans around the globe are enduring difficult times—and so are birds.
I am writing in the first week of spring. At a time when COVID stats are rising daily on the east coast of the southern continent at an alarming rate. And it’s far worse in other areas of the world. On the day I started writing this, in South Australia the first big fire of the season was burning on the Fleurieu Peninsula, which I live on the edge of. By the time these words are being read, perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic will be lessening its hold. Instead, we’ll all be concerned about the 2021–22 fire season. Going on recent fire seasons, it is not unreasonable to expect the worst.
On big and small screens we continue to watch floods, drought, hurricanes, earth-quakes and other disasters occurring around the world, while wondering when the next big pandemic will occur. The reality of climate change can no longer be ignored. Neither can the ongoing mass incidents of human rights abuse: war, genocide, apartheid, internment of refugees, deaths in custody, people left to starve by governments, and so much more. How do we soar—individually and collectively—when there is so much hardship?
Another important lesson birds have taught me is the responsibilities we all have towards each other. Like the little raven, zebra finch and white ibis, we need to care for our flocks so that we can all soar. Even if we can’t be together. We’ve shown care for others during the pandemic by not hanging with the flock. We probably all yearn to spread our wings, once the era of social distancing is over. Until then, like the Australasian swamphen and dusky moorhen, we don coloured beaks to protect others and ourselves.
This pandemic will end eventually, but we will need to keep working together. Including to reduce the impact of climate change. Some days it feels as if it’s already too late, but we can’t just give up. Otherwise, there will be no more birds. Their songs will no longer drift across the land and skies. We don’t really know for sure what killed the dinosaurs, but we can no longer deny that it’s humans who are killing birds, who are the descendants of those dinosaurs.
I’ve not really made any plans for the post-COVID era. With so many plans already cancelled or given up on during 2020–21, I feel hesitant to make any more. And it feels selfish to be planning anything good when people are dying, losing loved ones and enduring other hardships.
I’d like to think that one day I’ll have opportunities to soar again. To travel a wide open road, as my spirit soars with eagles. Seeking new adventures and inspiration. In the meantime, there’s happiness in the small moments, in the birdsong that makes my heart soar.
Karen Wyld lives on the coast, south of Adelaide. Her second novel, Where the Fruit Falls, won the 2020 Dorothy Hewitt Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Her nonfiction children’s book, Heroes, Rebels and Innovators, was published in 2021.