Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

The Swamp Pheasant

Strange ministrant of undescribed sounds. — KEATS.

Australian, truly; but, unlike the emu, the black swan, the lyre-bird, the kookaburra, and others, the swamp pheasant is not exclusively so. Familiarly known as a pheasant, and having one feature at least in common with the family, it makes no claim to direct relationship. Science seems somewhat bewildered by its contrarieties; it is placed among the cuckoos, its formal title being CENTROPUS PHASIANINUS— pheasant-like spur-foot — while the approved vernacular name is a combination, pheasant-coucal.

In common with most birds, the swamp pheasant has its exclamatory season. During the cool months it seldom breaks the silence; when the leaves of the purple-fruited terminalias begin to redden and fall, when the native nutmegs are soft, furry and brown, and before the calophyllums blossom, the pheasants, responding to the universal thrill, assume their status as the loudest (save the harsh-voiced channel-billed cuckoos) and most persistent singers of the forest Perhaps the term “singer,” applied to sweet-voiced birds generally, should not be associated with one of such original and powerful style. Mellow and fluent though they be, the utterances are not indicative of gladsomeness nor of a sprightly disposition; nor are they songs.

Melodious recitatives rather than harmonic themes, such as are sung by some honey-eaters or by metallic starlings in their rare intervals of restfulness and communication, the fluencies of this lover of the moist earth seem to typify favourite resorts — to be earthly, not aerial; assertions of the joys of this world rather than compliments to the skies. And when bird follows bird in varying keys in the transmission of its sentiments, until the voice in the distance sounds like a far-away bell, the listener will, if in harmony, give thanks for a psalm that proclaims happiness, peace and lively hope.

Has any poet attempted to rhyme its moods and music, any artist shown it save as a staid creature incapable of frolic and destitute of fun? Ideally at home on the peaty margins of pandanus swamps, revelling in seclusion, rejoicing triumphantly in otherwise silent places, a lover of sunshine as well as of cool shades, the long, dusky bird, when accustomed to the presence and the ways of man, surely reveals its gift of humour; else why those pranks, swinging its tail, ducking its head, ruffling itself to twice its natural bulk while chortling impertinences? Why, otherwise, does it squat on the frond of a coco-nut palm, spread out like a remnant of frayed bark, and, peering down, parody the terrier below?

The mimicry of the lyre-bird, the tinkle of the bell-bird, the songs of the lark, the warblings of the magpies, the strangulated paean of the butcher-bird, the melodies of the thrush, the hearty glee of some honey-eaters, the call of the whip-bird — all these find rendering in verse; but the swamp pheasant’s melodies, the richest, the purest, the loudest of all, have they been immortalized? The bird’s most prosperous sphere, the warm, moist coast, has yet to produce its poet, and southern versifiers may have ignored it for the reason that few have had the privilege of listening to it — also, perhaps, because it is not quite at home anywhere save in the tropics, and does not give of its best where least at ease.

This earthly psalmist of rare felicity in the expression of its emotions seems proud of its gifts and fond of exercising them. Harken now to the succession of full-sounding, slow, booming notes, accentuated by balanced rests, as if the vocalist were conscious of a flawless performance and studied it with the air of a libant, pausing between sips of the exquisite. Listen again to the quick, crisp, trippingly airy outbursts of merriment. Are they improvisations of a thoughtless moment, tossed into space? And how delicately do a pair in concord harmonize as, perched on a dead limb, they make musical a square mile of attentive forest!

What is richer, more inspiring to serene and lofty thought, more soothing, less worldly than the bubbling chant heard on a September midnight, when the winds are still? Wakened from innocent and happy dreams, the bird seems to assure its fellows that all is well — not boisterously or in loud and authoritative terms, but in tones bespeaking sympathy and love. It might be repeating that chiming phrase

He, watching over Israel,

Slumbers not nor sleeps.

A few seconds of thrilling silence, and another organ-voiced dreamer of all that is consoling takes up the theme, in the same subdued, hushing, almost apprehensive cadence. It is the warranty of mutual confidence and hope, blended with supplication for preservation from the perils of the night. A distant sleeper responds cautiously, each note distinct and mellow; and so the sound is borne away until lost in musical throbs, and the whole Isle has heard the pheasants reassuring each other against the powers of darkness.

Grand in their solemnity and comfort, the night notes are in sharp contrast with the varied exclamations and happy calls of the day. Surely there are but few birds gifted with such a range of vocabulary. Its undertones, its purlings of satisfaction, confidences to its mate, harsh protests against the presence of an enemy, sneers at those of whom it has no fear, joyful performance of its scales in unison with a lighter-voiced companion, defiant hoots, each and all explicit and characteristic, provide never-ceasing entertainment.

Among the many Australian songsters is there one more accomplished, one that more eloquently extols the sweetness of freedom, that croons to itself so like a flute in tone with a zephyr, that scolds a hawk in the sky or a snake in the grass with such fervour and decision, or unconsciously repeats the echoes from a belfry in elf-land?

Besides being a chanter of the pleasures of life in the fervent regions, the good bird is a gallant defender of its home, an attentive spouse, an industrious provider, a bully, a bombastic sort of knave, a fighter for its rights; no tremulous socialist too weak to whisper, but a hearty individualist making the best of opportunities, with a good and playful word for everyone, no fear of anyone and some sort of greeting for all.

Careless, happy-go-lucky, unreflective as it may seem, surely in obedience to the first law of Nature the swamp pheasant displays high intelligence. Generally the rough, loosely-built nest is hidden in tall, blady grass a foot or so above the ground, the grass stems being bent to meet above it in the form of an arch. Occasionally the site is a low bush, and the grass structure is then interwoven with twigs and faded leaves. Wherever situated, it looks like a crude basket with a disproportionate and impracticable handle; but its design does the builder credit. While the arch covers the back, neck and head of the brooding bird, the tail extends beyond, and the greys and browns of the upper feathers blend with the neutral tints of the withered vegetation, so that concealment is complete. When the bird is absent, the arch screens the conspicuous white eggs, and, in due course hides ugly, black, almost repulsive-looking chicks, each sparsely clad with long, white, hairlike feathers.

The eggs of most ground birds are, of course, tinted in accordance with the environment of the nest. White eggs demand protection, hence the artfulness of the swamp pheasant. Can there be any doubt that the scheme of disguise is the result of conscious purpose, and accordingly different from the primal gift of green backs to gorgeous-breasted fruit-pigeons, birds destitute of outstanding characteristics and pitifully crude in nest-building?

An authority on protective coloration says that, in consequence of all wild creatures being lighted from above, a gradation of shades from dark on the upper side to light on the lower is the one great principle running through organic life, and is “exactly what is needed to render solid objects inconspicuous under descending light.” Aberrant in other respects, the swamp pheasant disobeys this law, and justifies its disobedience by inconspicuousness. In a notable habit the bird does seem conscious of the wisdom of nullifying its appearance. Settling in an exposed position, such as the top of a stump, the tail is drooped and slightly expanded, and the wings held loosely and languidly, the effect being that the black underparts are more or less effectively screened by brown and neutral tints, so that the bird becomes, though not invisible, an unattractive item, a blank in the scene not at all likely to arrest the eye. It is not to be assumed that the listless, helpless attitude is designed to lure an intruder from the nest, for it is practised at all seasons.

Except the universal foe — snakes — the swamp pheasant has few, if any enemies. Why then the need of caution during sunlight, which snakes do not court? There are grounds for the belief that the bird, confident of general security, braves possible foes, for as often as not on becoming a blur it repeats a singularly harsh cry, to the accompaniment of a trick of the body that flouts the theory of self-protection. At each jeering exclamation the tail, spread like an open fan, jerks over the back, and the head ducks, note and action combining in bombastic self-advertisement.

However vain speculations on the reflective powers of birds in general may be, the swamp pheasant, possessing original qualifications as well as oddities, may be studied as a superior to “lesser breeds without the law;” and if it has also the virtue of being able to enjoy its own antics, then grant it all possible goodwill, and interpret its actions in flattering terms.

Few wild birds are less skilled on the wing. Speed and grace in the air were not considered when its form was in the making; since most of its living is earned on or close to the ground, little more than the rudiments of flight have been acquired. Although able to rise from the ground, its angle of ascent is low, its speed slow and anxious, if the bird be under the influence of excitement.

Alighting on the branch of a tree it generally loses balance, almost toppling over; the long, loose-jointed tail then comes into action as a counterpoise. Having secured foothold, it jumps and scrambles higher and higher, more like a timid cat than a winged creature, and from due elevation labours to another and loftier tree. Even the great gift of effortless descent to Mother Earth is not exercised with boldness or skill, being undertaken as a thrilling, adventuresome feat not wholly free from risk; and the landing is often both awkward and ungraceful.

Neither truly of the ground nor of the trees, the realm of this exceptional bird is among the shrubs and tall grass, where insects are abundant and cover convenient. However entangled the undergrowth, it moves with ease and considerable speed, with shuffling, almost reptilian wriggle, secreting itself suddenly and cunningly, and bursting into flustering flight to avert capture by hand.

On this Isle, where birds are on terms of equality and are encouraged to exercise their rights, the swamp pheasant has become a familiar. Does it realize that it may be impudent and scoffing without forfeiting goodwill? With an air of defiance and bravado it may sweep along the path to the beach, chuckling and sneering, head tucked between hunched shoulders, or retreat into the maze of blady grass, side-glancing invitations to a game of hide and seek in which it is bound to win. And when, on occasion, one with more than common effrontery sits on the gate-post as you pass through, is it not polite to make obeisance, since it represents the community which had charter of the Isle ages before the intruder made free of it?

To such a friend you may bow with genuine respect. It has flattered you with trustfulness; has killed off innumerable plant-destroying insects; has saluted your ears day and night for the best part of the year; has exasperated you by the persistent din of a far-sounding plaint; has taught you that a bird of clumsy and laggard flight may be the embodiment of good-humour. With organ voice it has gloated over the joys of the moment, and its intoned monody on passing woes

Sounds ever as a sullen bell

Remembered knolling a departing friend.

More than a mere bird, it has come to be loved as the good genius of the Isle, for it typifies many of its features besides its liberties, humid shades and babble of running water.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32