Magpie Song

Photograph: John Milbank
Photograph: John Milbank

AFTER THE FOREVER-FLIGHT from Portland to Perth via San Francisco and Sydney, I slept the sleep of the crypt. It would be weeks before my circadian rut and I settled in comfortably again together, but there is something about sleep deprivation that heightens the senses, which is why it has been an important element of vision quests. And this boldly patterned entity staring back at me from the lawn outside my window at St. Catherine’s College was certainly a vision.

Clearly, this presence was crowlike, shockingly pied in black-and-white. Its chalky, front-heavy bill reminded me of an English rook as it yo-yoed to worm a niblet. My field guide showed it to be the Australian magpie, belonging to the bell-magpies, but it might as well have been called a crow; after all, when Audubon named the nutcracker of the western peaks for its finder, he called it Clark’s crow. But there is already an Australian crow, and an Australian raven, small but making up for it with a bushy beard. So it is not surprising that this Antipodean bird was tagged “magpie,” if only for its two-tone suit — black face, back, and breast; white mantle, wings, and belly. What was surprising was its beautiful song. Unlike the Australian crow’s harsh caw or the raven’s ubiquitous squall that sounds like a seriously pissed-offpussycat, the magpie warbles like a whisper, or a flute.

I was in Perth to attend a conference called Come Outside and Play, so when all the talk was over, I did. Along the bush trails of enormous Kings Park, spring wildflowers were peaking. The most prominent pink towers were the alien invasive gladiolas, but many native plants also contributed to the extraordinary palette. Strangest were kangaroo paws, the state flower — velvety, two-foot-tall, red and green wonders that would be hard to dream up from scratch. This would be the perfect Christmas plant, if only it bloomed Down Under in midsummer instead of spring.

The birds more than matched the fabulous flowers. I never tracked down one of the brilliant blue fairy wrens that all birders covet when they come here, though I did see emus from a bus, and kookaburras with their exaggerated bills, sitting indeed in gum trees. And fantails, and honeyeaters, and unbelievably metallic bronzewings forged from some ornithological alchemy, all thrilling and completely outside my experience. What most rang this birder’s bells, however, were the psittacines: the parrots. On my first walk out, ungodly squawks and cascading petals announced the first of many flocks of rainbow lorikeets, stunning wonders like painted buntings stuffed into parrot suits. When you see the purple, blue, scarlet, orange, and wild, dazzling, parrot green as they daub themselves all over the fruit trees, tossing husks here and there with abandon, you know you are not in Kansas anymore — or southwest Washington, for that matter. But the lorikeets are not easy on the ear. They screech in flight like a pack of tractors grinding through their gears in falsetto, making you cover your ears even as your eyes open as wide as they’ll go.
I was coming around a curve in Kings Park when I heard a pleasant, purring bell-tone that rose into a bright “dotty dot” or several-noted ring. It took me a second to decode, but then I discerned the words “twenty-eight.” Of course! This was the 28 parrot, also known as the Australian ringneck. A dozen or more 28s foraged on the trail before me: grapy head, yellow neck-ring, deep blue wings, and pure chartreuse overall. They remained until I was almost upon them, behaving in a way that the old bird books call “confiding.” All through my visit the noisy lorikeets were unavoidable, while the 28s appeared softly, here and there and now and then.

But the parrot that really grabbed my heart was the galah. Plump with rounded white topknots and bills, galahs look baby-faced to me. They also recall a popular color scheme of the 1950s: pink and gray. Their backs and wings are the softest of dove grays, and their breasts are the pink of rhubarb pie, of coral, of the ventral forewing of a Virginia lady butterfly — a hue uncommon in the animal world, more often seen in the realms of petunias or popsicles.

I found a pair of galahs guarding a tree hole in a dead snag on the beautiful University of Western Australia campus. I reckoned that the tree had been left standing for this broody pair. But when I looked a little later, the pair of parrots at the tree hole were 28s; and on a third pass, I found rainbow lorikeets in possession! Do they just trade off in shifts, I wondered, or drive each other away in turn? And which species will end up nesting there? The galahs were hanging about nearby each time the others held the fort, so I was rooting for them, especially after I found the favor of a rich pink plume, a breast feather fallen to earth after an energetic preening or an encounter among rivals. Like a drunken cheerleader at a tailgate party, I chanted to myself, “Go, galahs!” It occurred to me that I could happily come here and engage in a thesis study of their behavior, giving me an academic excuse to simply watch them all day long.

Still, as much as I enjoyed the fresh sensations of Perth, I was distressed by something else I saw, or didn’t see: no one else even noticed the parade of the parrots! As I stood beneath the snag watching the changing of the psittacine guard, hundreds of students and faculty and others walked past. Plenty of passersby looked at this obvious outlander with binoculars; I was the exotic element here. But not a single person shifted his or her gaze a few feet to behold this splendid, made-in-Australia avian spectacle. Is it that easy to become jaded to the nature about us, even such a striking expression as this? I guess that’s what the conference title, Come Outside and Play, was getting at. The passersby were out of doors, all right, but they certainly weren’t playing. Rushing about with cell phones and laptops, they were having no fun at all, and it broke my heart to see them so detached from the world.

Now it’s another week, another conference, and I am back in the Northern Hemisphere. I’m not only jet-lagged beyond retrieval, but also without reference point in time or place. Until, that is, I hear a familiar sound coming from the lawn outside my window at the Aspen Institute — the querulous maaaag? of a black-and-white magpie, no less sweet to this Colorado-bred lad than the pretty song of its Down Under namesake. And what’s that over there, in the cottonwoods, among blue sage? A flock of cherry-crowned redpolls, northern finches come south on winter’s breath, the rosy wash over their snowy breasts the very pink of the galah’s breast feather tucked away here in my notebook.

These birds situate me, pulling me out of that ungrounded state so familiar to those of us who follow this weirdly vagile way of life called the lecture circuit. Even more important, they remind me of something I hope I will never forget: no matter where I go, if only I’ll look, I can never be anywhere other than at home in the world. For ten years of Tangled Banks, I’ve tried to say this in as many ways as I could imagine, and I’ll say it one more time for it bears repeating, like a mantra: just look around yourself, really look, and the actual world will never let you down.

Robert Michael Pyle (born July 19, 1947 in Denver, Colorado) is a lepidopterist and a professional writer who has published twelve books and hundreds of papers, essays, stories and poems. He has a Ph.D. from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His acclaimed 1987 book Wintergreen describing the devastation caused by unrestrained logging in Washington’s Willapa Hills near his adopted home was the winner of the 1987 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. His recent books include Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide, Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land, and Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place. He won the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award.