Wednesday 05 August 2020

Sexing birds as holiday hosts

Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 22 July 2006, p. 39.

Sex and galahs. Have I got your attention with that opening? Well, among the mysteries into which I have been initiated this week was how to tell the difference between a male and female galah. Thanks to a visit from two Scottish friends who are avid bird watchers, we have been finding out more about our feathered friends than I had picked up in a lifetime. On their last visit they persuaded us to put a bird feeder in the garden and now we have a couple of galahs arriving morning and evening and, of course, our friends wanted to know how to tell the boy from the girl. Out came the travelling bird book and from it we learn that males have brown eyes and females have red ones.

My editor suggested I include the recipe for galah soup. I think it ran something like this. First catch your galah. Boil it for two weeks then throw it away and pour the liquid on the garden. Our ancestors in Australia did have a range of dishes based on parrots. In my ceaseless campaign to keep down the ferals I think I may try to look out some of these. No doubt the local farmers would be quite happy to try them on the sulphur-crested cockatoos which are now in plague proportions in rural Victoria.

Then we discovered that not all magpies in Australia are the same. Those in Queensland, where our friends were staying with two of their daughters and the grandchildren, have black backs, while Victorian ones are white across the backs. Oh, and magpies defy Bergmann’s rule in Australia. This generalisation says that where birds of a particular family are spread across different latitudes, the ones nearest the poles will tend to be larger than those closer to the equator. But Tasmanian magpies are smaller than those to be found on the mainland.

A visit to Lorne took us to the Coachman’s Motel at the bottom of the Deans Marsh Road, where mine host, Terry, has been feeding some local kookaburras for some time. To entertain our guests he had five of them sitting on the railing outside their room one morning. This time the boy–girl distinction has something to do with the colours of the feathers on their respective rumps.

My friend Jim has just become the bird recorder for the Isle of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland, now that he has retired to live there. This necessitates him writing a column once a fortnight for the local paper, the Arran Banner. He once told me that he had said to his wife if he ever wrote anything for the local rag she should cut his arms off, but he makes an exception for the bird column.

Mind you, he was at the centre of a bit of controversy the other day, when after describing the appearance of a rare bird, the yellow wagtail, the photograph that appeared to accompany the column was of the common yellow hammer. The editor explained that the photograph Jim had submitted was a bit fuzzy, so they had just put in a sharper one, but as it turned out, of the wrong bird. My enterprising friend then got a couple of his bird-watching mates to send in letters purporting to be from the respective birds pointing out the error. One complained that he had been mixed up with the common herd, the other preened himself on the fact that he was now regarded as an exceptional bird.

All this has given us a renewed interest in the local bird life, and while I don’t claim any expertise, it does make our regular walks around the area that bit more interesting and enjoyable.

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