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Part natural history, part folklore, part exploration of art and aesthetics, part memoir, a beautiful book that will appeal to bird lovers, readers of literature, and art lovers As an amateur naturalist and nature lover, Janine Burke, art historian and author, has spent many years observing birds. Here is the story of her passion, a personal, wide-ranging, and intimate book that will appeal to all those who love nature, literature, and art. What are nests if not art created by nature? If a nest is not art, how can we account for those exquisite, painstakingly, constructed creations that are decorated, or woven through with feathers, or studded with objects of a particular color or sheen? This book reveals both the art and mystery found in nature and celebrates them with lyricism, insight, and great affection. In the tradition of Longitude, Cod, or The Cello Suites, this memoir is also a short education that encompasses celebration and theory, investigation and memoir, the familiar and the revelatory—as surprising and enticing as any beautiful, intricately constructed nest.
|Publisher:||Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||4 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Art of Birds
By Janine Burke
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Janine Burke
All rights reserved.
At the museum
I'm a very amateur naturalist. I trained as an art historian, not a scientist, and what I've learned about birds is from observation — often of the most ordinary suburban kind, or on holidays in the country — or from reading, or watching nature programs on TV. I bought my first pair of binoculars not long ago. As my interest has grown, my eyes have become keener. On travels in Europe, America, Australia and Africa, I have watched birds with increasing fascination and admiration. Or noted with alarm their depleted numbers. There are no sparrows left in central London, for example, because the bugs the sparrows feed their babies have gone, so the sparrows had to leave too. Pigeons can endure modern metropolitan life and you will find them trundling beside you on the street, our slightly bedraggled fellow citizens. Pigeons enraged Italian writer Italo Calvino, who declared them 'a degenerate progeny, filthy and infected, neither domestic nor wild' and bewailed that the sky of Rome had fallen under their dominion. But we should not be too disdainful of this species. Their skills as messengers contributed to the French victory against the Germans at the 1914 Battle of the Marne, and during the Second World War the British Army's Air Ministry included a pigeon section. Some of its flock were awarded medals for bravery.
We tend to take birds for granted, in the landscape or in our neighbourhoods. Yet when they're gone, it's as though there's a hole in the sky, in the air, an absence of beauty and grace, and vivid chatter or haunting cries are replaced with eerie silence. The presence of birds communicates the health of a place. They are our contact with wild nature.
The lives of birds have little to do with us directly. They recognise us as predators. Apart from that, they don't need to see us. They don't need us; we don't have anything to teach them — though we can be helpful. I live with birds quite literally: a family of Indian mynas has nested in the air vent in the wall of my study. An excellent position on the second floor, it offers unobstructed views of the surrounding terrain, sea breezes as well as shelter. Location, location, location could be the birds' motto.
Common mynas, introduced to Australia from southern India in the 1860s, are generally disliked due to their aggressive behaviour. The yellow patch of bare skin surrounding their glaring eyes resembles a bandit's mask. I once saw a group of them dive-bomb Prospero, my cat, on the front stairs of my apartment block. I'm not sure whether it was retribution for crimes committed or whether they were merely warning him, but he did not use the front stairs again for some time. Often when I'm in the yard, hanging out the washing or getting in the car, the mynas gather on the roof to shriek at me. I yell back, 'I'm your landlady! How dare you! I'll throw you out!' In fact, we have been happily cohabiting for several years. Proximity has softened my attitude. Their bad temper is only for outside, for real and perceived threats. At home, in their nest, their tones are dulcet as they quietly confer at morning and evening. Like the mynas, many bird species have adopted our structures as their own. Mynas mate for life and my neighbours seem a contented couple. They must hear me, clattering away on the keyboard, answering the phone, reading sentences aloud, cursing when the words don't flow, but I present no danger. We listen to one another's languages without understanding but also without demur.
Where did swallows live before there were buildings? The easiest way to locate one of their elegant mud homes is to examine the eaves of your house or any other vertical construction, and there you might find, fixed to the wall and protected by an overhanging beam, a neat triangular cupped shape. You might also spot some bright eyes peering back at you or the shaft of a blue-black feathered tail. Swallows rebuild their nests, the same couple often returning to refurbish and breed after their annual migration. The site of the nest can appear perilously exposed. There's a swallow's nest attached to a wall near a cafeteria at Melbourne's Monash University, where I work. By day it's a noisy, subterranean, fluorescent-lit corridor, one of the university's pedestrian arteries. The nest, about two metres from the ground, looks vulnerable; the broom of a zealous cleaner or a missile tossed by a prankster could damage or dislodge it. I approach the nest with trepidation and each time feel relieved to see it intact. It's easy to feel protective towards nests: they are such flamboyant little miracles of design.
I can't spot the swallows' nests in Elsternwick Park, close to where I live, because they're too well hidden. But I know approximately where they are because the swallows begin to circle me with dizzying speed, a tactic meant to deflect intruders. Swallows are inoffensive birds, but to have dozens of them wheeling around your feet and face can be an unnerving experience.
Elwood, lush, low lying and close to the sea, was once a swamp and, like most of the suburb, Elsternwick Park is reclaimed land. It's a great green swathe ringed by river red gums and it has a children's playground, sports ovals and a manmade lake occupied by ducks and a family of black swans. (The lake was dug to manage the floods that periodically deluge Elwood. In the nineteenth century, before the bridges were built, folk often drowned at night trying to get from Elwood to St Kilda. They'd set off for the lights of Barkly Street and that was the last anyone ever saw of them.) Though the park seems dominated by team sports and people with dogs, the swans provide the true centre. They are worshipped like gods by the locals, who gaze in awe as the family glides in magnificent tandem from their reed-enclosed nest on the lake's island. Two winters ago when the female was savaged by a dog who'd scaled the fence which surrounds the lake, the communal outcry was hurt and real. The dog and his hapless owner were threatened with banishment and retribution. In fact, the swan intitially survived her wounds. It was the shock, the awful indelible memory of what had happened to her that left her lingering for weeks and finally killed her. Swans mate for life and the male has remained with their brood, the haughty widower of the lake.
By contrast, when the turtle doves took up residence, I had to chase them away. With their spotted collars, dusky grey-pink feathers and melodious cooing the doves are prettier than their cousins the pigeons. A pair landed on my balcony and decided to set up house on the aluminium casing of the air-conditioning pipe. The casing is narrow and slippery but the doves were determined to build. It is a good position, high and sunny. For several days, the doves brought a selection of grass stems which they deposited on the casing and which immediately slid off. It's best to be careful around birds, to move silently so as not to alarm them. But, after observing this pair's fruitless efforts and tired of picking up stems, I loudly remonstrated with the doves, who flew off with shocked faces.
I don't mean to sentimentalise birds. Most are not gentle, placid creatures but fighters and predators, the determined defenders of their territory. Isaac Watts, the eighteenth-century preacher who coined the cloying adage 'Birds in their little nests agree', clearly had not spent much time observing them. Some species of cuckoo have a nasty habit of dumping their egg in the nest of a smaller bird. When the cuckoo chick hatches, monstrous, blind and featherless, it pushes the other eggs out of the nest, then tyrannises its adopted parents for food. Kookaburra kids often kill their brothers and sisters. Hierarchies, for some birds, are cruelly and perfunctorily administered and the punishment meted out to the young, the old or the injured can be brutal. Hens and ducks are bullies who deal with their inferiors by pecking the backs of their necks raw. A friend and I were picnicking at St Kilda's Blessington Gardens when he pointed out a gathering of white ducks with golden beaks and pristine plumage who were swaggering across the lawn, proud but comical. I noted the straggler in the flock, an isolated creature who seemed too inhibited to join the others. Its neck, tender, pink and pimpled, was denuded of feathers due to the jabs of its fellows. Its fate was sealed, I explained, and it was unlikely that the duck would ever enjoy the same companionship, food or mating rights as the others. My friend told me I'd ruined our picnic.
At Elwood Beach, I watched a silver gull turn to its neighbour dozing on the sand and, without provocation, stab its beak into the other bird's breast with all the force it could muster. Near my home, a slender canal runs through a verdant water meadow, rich with eucalypts and flowering native plants. In that little paradise, wattlebirds and mynas, magpies and mudlarks fight it out all day, sometimes it seems for the sheer pleasure of shrieking and swooping, like fighter planes, to assert who is faster, meaner, louder. Watching mynas dip and dart around my car simply for the fun of competing with its speed, I wonder if they consider cars a species of alien, ground-hugging bird. On windy days, riding the currents and tossed around the skies, birds are thrill seekers displaying the reckless confidence of the truly adept.
Magpies appear devoted parents, patiently feeding their young who, after fledging, are as large as they. The young trail the adults, wailing to be fed as they did in the nest, and the parents comply. But when the bird matures, the parents drive their child from the nesting territory with all the power their knife-sharp beaks and wicked speed allows. The magpies' glorious dawn carolling translates as little more than, 'Get the hell out of here. This place is mine.' In winter, the oval opposite my apartment hosts local football matches. The magpies, who believe the oval is theirs, stand on a tall light pole and watch with bemusement the running, yelling humans who occupy their land. After making a few half-hearted attempts to frighten them off, the magpies, outnumbered, retreat to the light pole to wait.
Birds are pragmatists. One evening in a neighbour's garden, I spotted a big sleek tabby cat, its tail twitching with anticipation, as it surveyed an unfledged magpie chick hopping about and uselessly flapping its wings. The chick had fallen from its nest somewhere nearby. Shooing away the cat, I was trying to catch the bird when, out of the blue, one of its parents descended, zooming towards the cat and me. I hoped the parent would stave off the cat so I could grab the chick. But the parent, assessing the situation after a few more swoops, disappeared into the sky. The cat, the chick and I watched its exit with decidedly different emotions. Perhaps the parent made the right decision. I managed to keep the cat at bay and capture the bird in my shopping bag. As soon as I slipped the bag over its head, it ceased struggling and squawking and lay perfectly still. Playing dead? At the vet's the next morning I was assured the bird was fine and that a wildlife officer would care for it until it was ready to be released in the wild. The young magpie had spent the night on my balcony inside a slotted laundry basket with a book for a roof. At least it had avoided a future where it would be thrashed and abandoned by its parents when they considered it old enough to fend for itself.
Cities may be inhospitable to birds but they can offer a few advantages. A different diet can change behaviour. The crows seen strutting purposefully about the streets, eating whatever they can find, are more polite than their country cousins who will pluck out the eyes of a dying lamb before feasting on its flesh. The wider array of food available in the city makes such predatory behaviour unnecessary. Some birds use our roads as maps. When the gulls that congregate in Melbourne's centre decide to head for Port Phillip Bay, they use the boulevard of St Kilda Road to navigate their route to the sea, dropping a right turn near South Melbourne. They might be heading for the banquet provided by St Kilda, a raucous, bustling, beachside tourist strip of cafes and fast food joints. (What's more raucous than a gull clamouring for food?) Or the flock could be returning to hunt in the old-fashioned way, taking from what the sea offers.
Gulls are casual builders. On a rocky promontory on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour, I observed a colony of silver gulls, their nests little more than a detritus of twigs strewn on shit-spattered terrain. So completely at home were the gulls that a human leaning over the fence caused not a flicker of alarm as they attended to their chicks, brown and fluffy as sparrows. For gulls, life on the wing is obviously more attractive than labour-intensive design projects.
Birds, of course, are not the only creatures that produce nests: female alligators make holes in the damp earth in swamps to incubate their young. Termite mounds stand metres tall in the desert like weird mud-carved totems. The architecture of the beehive is a sweet, golden and humming complex. Wasps and rabbits, fish and snakes, turtles and hedgehogs make a variety of nests. Even chimpanzees construct beds from branches as night falls in their treetop residences. When it rains, they make roofs of leaves. Not all birds build nests — some move into a deserted nest built by another species, some use a ledge on a cliff.
Once upon a time, when humanity lived a more rural existence, watching birds and finding nests was an integral part of childhood. Boys, and sometimes girls, clambered up trees to examine nests and maybe to steal the eggs and the nest to boot. How can you appreciate nests if you can't see them? Where can you see them nowadays? In 2010 in the Melbourne Museum, I held a nest in my hands for the first time. It was an astonishing and exquisite experience.
The nest itself was delicate and beautiful. However, as an art historian I'm used to the regulations that govern the conservation of precious objects, whether paintings, manuscripts or photographs. The more prestigious the institution and rarer the object, the stricter the rules. I'm not arguing: collections need care. There is an etiquette involved with personally viewing or handling artworks which is rather like being seated at a formal meal. First you enter a clean, hushed, temperature-controlled room. Then a curator indicates where you will sit and offers you a pair of white cotton gloves so your grubby fingers won't stain the artwork. Then a box of treasures is placed before you. Sometimes you are not even allowed to open the lid.
When I visited the Melbourne Museum to see some of the nests, which were not on display, the young woman at the desk said, 'The nests are in there,' indicating a seminar room off the Discovery Centre. I hovered, waiting to be accompanied, to be given cotton gloves, to be shown where to sit. I had brought my own pencils for making notes. 'In there,' she said again, firmly but not unkindly. 'You can stay as long as you like.'
After years of obedience training, I was daunted. What if I wrecked a nest? The seminar room was unremarkable: modern, windowless, with about fifty charcoal-coloured chairs in neat rows. On the desk at the front was a huge cardboard box. I picked it up. It was light. For a moment I thought there'd been a mistake and the box was empty; then I opened it and saw it was full of nests. Each was in a snap-lock plastic bag, the sort you put sandwiches in, with a handwritten catalogue card. I slid the topmost nest out of its bag and into my hands.
The striped honeyeater's nest shimmered with long, soft, beige and tawny-coloured emu feathers, at least one hundred of them. It had been squashed flat from some previous, less commodious form of storage; otherwise it was perfectly preserved. An elaborate piece of work, it looked like an exotic purse worthy of an empress, stitched by a Surrealist seamstress. It was like holding an object that belonged to the wind and it gave the expression 'feathering your nest' quite a new meaning. Feeling my way into the lip of the nest with my fingertips, I found a dense arrangement of woven grasses. First the honeyeaters had collected the grasses and constructed the nest proper, which hangs like a hammock between the branches of a eucalypt, then they collected the feathers which they deftly slid into the interstices.
The catalogue card informed me that the nest, like many of the others in the box, had been donated by a member of the public, in this case R.P. Cooper from Milparinka in 1969. Milparinka is in a remote corner of north-western New South Wales, near the tri-borders of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia — truly the Outback. Several parties of our doomed explorers, including Charles Sturt and Burke and Wills, trekked through the country, heading north. In the 1870s, gold was found at nearby Tibooburra, but Milparinka had something more precious in that arid region: a creek with a water hole. I learn from Penny Olsen, one of Australia's leading ornithologists, that Ray Cooper was an honorary ornithologist at the Melbourne Museum.
Emus, nomadic wanderers, congregate near water holes in the dry season. (Australia's unofficial bird emblem, the emu is a large flightless creature with a tiny head, massive feet and a voluminous feathered coat.) The honeyeaters build their nests in the same period. So the water hole at Milparinka is probably where the honeyeaters gathered the feathers that the emus had shed. Today Milparinka is a ghost town, with a population of less than 300, but emus still wander the land and perhaps the honeyeaters still gather their feathers. Did the honeyeaters use the feathers as camouflage? Emus stand up to two metres tall and honeyeaters sometimes build their nests at around the same height. Emus are big strong birds that can run like the wind and slash with their great claws. A predator, thinking it had glimpsed an emu in the brush, might desist from robbing the nest of eggs or attacking the chicks. On the other hand, Indigenous tribes avidly tracked the emus, seeking out their large eggs and often ambushing them at water holes; around Milparinka that tribe was the Maliangaapa people, who also used the water holes for their ceremonies.
Excerpted from Nest by Janine Burke. Copyright © 2012 Janine Burke. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 At the museum,
2 Picturing nests,
3 Early birds and bird brains,
4 Migrants and writers,
5 The poetry of nests,
6 What is art?,
What People are Saying About This
"Nest, Burke writes, is a word that 'conjures fundamental notions of home, family, privacy, shelter and rest.' Her book alights intelligently and compassionately on each of these ideas, and between its pages the reader is given pause to gaze up at the sky and marvel at the pelicans or sparrows flying overhead." —Sydney Morning Herald