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

A Sanctuary Problem

Lest in time to come statements of the past concerning the plenitude of bird-life on this island should be discredited, and the author of them declared to be untrustworthy, it is due that fairly recent observations, the drift of which is anything but pleasing, should be placed on record.

When the sanctity of a scene unsoiled by the faintest smear of civilization was violated by the establishment of a human’s home, the number and variety of its birds formed one of several most attractive features; and it was resolved to protect them in so far as the power of a single admirer might be effective. This ordinance was followed by a suggestion to the Government of the State that the whole of the group of which Dunk Island is the largest should be created a sanctuary. The proposal was confirmed forthwith, and for more than two decades all birds, save two predatory species, have been unmolested.

It was natural to expect that the result of the policy indicated would be a progressive increase in species and individuals, until these islands became the resort of an innumerable concord of happy birds — indeed, that as the years passed there would be few native to North Queensland unrepresented in an undisturbed community. These anticipations have not only been unrealized, but hard facts show that, instead of increase, there have been, with few exceptions, serious decreases in species, and in some instances absolute loss.

Students of bird-life, while sympathizing with the failure of an experiment in which Nature was to work her own will in her own way, may be interested in a brief review of the circumstances. They are sure to be concerned over the results, for do they not indicate general as well as local conditions from which it is not possible to draw consoling conclusions?

Early in the occupation of the island an attempt was made to compile a list of its birds; and eventually, with the co-operation of friends possessing exact knowledge, a census was made without the sacrifice of a single life. It was never expected that a list so arranged would have the least scientific value. Such a result was not contemplated, the only objects in view being the welfare of the birds, a tribute to them, and the presentation of a plea for those of Australia generally.

To one who disclaims expert knowledge, who regards birds from the standpoint of aestheticism and sentiment blended with utility, who fears that Australia as a whole has not yet learned the worth of many species peculiar to the land, and who cons the steadily-growing “extinct list” with dismay, local experience might seem to prove the futility of preservative plans. Though countenanced officially, the moral influence of individuals is sure to fail. Moreover in some instances even the authority of the State is powerless to arrest conditions destructive to birds of restricted range and secluded habits. Material progress is not to be checked by a shy bird fluttering across the path; but the stern reproof, “Too late,” may yet be averted in respect of many species if the community as a whole makes demand.

These reflections, however, stand apart from the present purpose, which designs to tell in what manner and why a project that promised much personal satisfaction failed in so many details.

The bird census of the island comprised every species observed, even casual and rare visitors, and mere wanderers resting, perhaps for an hour or so, during continental flights. In one instance a bird never known to alight was included — the spine-tailed swift, which occasionally tarries for a meal in the air. In the list of disappearances those that came shyly and departed with haste will find no place; but it will include those whose sojourn was wont to last for a few days and to be deemed recurrent.

Comparison between the census and the depreciated numbers of recent years show that from the birds of prey the sparrow-hawk, kestrel, black-shouldered kite and black-checked falcon have disappeared.

Out of forty perchers eleven are missing — yellow oriole, yellow fig-bird (SPHECOTHERES), black-backed magpie, black-headed diamond-bird, helmeted friar-bird, silver-eye, and the blue, pied, shining, white-eared and spectacled flycatchers.

The purple-breasted and white-headed fruit-pigeons, pied oyster-catcher, masked and golden plover and the plumed egret have not been seen for years, and among the sea-birds the lesser crested, sooty and bridled terns find no place at date. (1921)

With the exception of swiftlets, scrub-fowls, swamp pheasants, brown-winged terns and pied cormorants, an all-round decrease in numbers has to be recorded, and no species save the brown-winged tern has the credit of increase.

Among the more notable species showing decrease are:— Nutmeg, red-crowned and little green pigeons, metallic starlings, rainbow-birds, rainbow lorikeets, white cockatoos and mistletoe-birds.

Inquiry into the causes for the disappearance of birds from this sanctuary discloses several interesting facts. Easy as it will be to demonstrate that destructive agencies range from cyclones directly to orange-pips indirectly, to specify all will be impossible; but an undoubted truth emerges upon even a superficial glance at the subject — that birds of gregarious habits which happen to be endowed with the gift of beauty, or are in any way associated with what is known as sport, are the first to be doomed.

In the latter category is the nutmeg pigeon, than which no bird on the coast of North Queensland is better known, more talked about, or more conspicuous. Because these pigeons congregate in communities on the smaller islands for breeding purposes, the casual observer is apt to over-estimate their numbers and imagine that it would be impossible to exterminate what seems to be one of the superfluities of nature. The big white birds, hanging in clusters on low trees bowed and bent by their weight, offer seductive targets, and on the morning after a raid the sand may be white with rejected dead, while chicks mumble in hundreds of nests and the white eggs (one in each nest) begin to decay. Unless patiently cooked, the birds have no attractive qualities on the table. Those who shoot them, therefore, cannot reflect with an easy conscience on their achievement. Neither the “sport” nor the table has afforded gratification, and the deserted nests and the fate of the orphan chicks stand to the “sportsmen’s” discredit if not disgrace.

The absolute disappearance of nutmeg pigeons from the more accessible islands seems as inevitable as the passing of the blacks, and it may be stupidly sentimental to make lament; but the process brings into light an unworthy national trait against which no opportunity of railing should be lost. If it were realized that it is not only unsportsmanlike to kill nesting birds, but stupid also and inhumane, clean-minded men would scorn the deed. There are others who scoff at any appeal to manliness and sense, since they possess neither, and cannot appreciate those qualities in others, and that class, mischievous and beyond the reproach of words, ought to be dealt with roughly.

Pretty to look at, right glorious in the enjoyment of freedom, harmless in every sense, and without doubt useful and necessary in the scheme of Nature, cannot such birds, even if otherwise undesirable, be preserved for all time? Or are we to assent to the charge of being uncouthly selfish, viciously cruel?

Positive as the causes for the decimation of nutmeg pigeons may be, it is difficult to account for the like disaster to another gregarious, migratory bird. Metallic starlings come every season from regions nearer the equator, arriving with the pigeons. They are more plentiful on the mainland than on the islands, and generation after generation nests in the same tree, hatching out three or four broods between August and March. It is well to confine consideration of the evil times that have befallen these handsome and useful birds to circumstances and conditions on this island.

Twenty years ago there were four populous colonies here, and in time two others were established. One had existed from time whereof the memory of man went not to the contrary. It lasted until overthrown by the cyclone of March, 1918. Another colony, in a gigantic milk-wood tree, must have had an annual output of over a thousand birds each season. A summary decrease in population was noticed, and in two seasons the tree was deserted. Similar conditions apply to two other colonies in milk-wood trees, and at date of writing not a single colony exists here, though a small one is established on an islet a mile away. During the period mentioned the birds were free from interference. Why the loss?

Birds living in crowded communities may be more susceptible to epidemics than those that favour isolation; but no sign or evidence of disease has been noticed. Each succeeding year representatives of the several colonies returned in fewer numbers until occupation lapsed, and this fact indicates that the loss is not due to local causes. Is the ubiquitous collector of bird skins responsible?

White cockatoos, strictly protected here, pay penalty for having acquired a taste for citrus fruits, especially oranges and mandarins; they are shot by fruit-growers of the mainland, exasperated by the slovenly ravages of flying foxes and the indecencies of fruit-flies. The Dunk Island contingent, which was wont to fly to and fro daily, suffers with degenerate mates. Since the temptation is of recent date, the liking of the birds for the forbidden fruit could not have been in obedience to original sin. It can be traced to the corruption of good manners by evil communications. In a district about fifty miles to the south, where natural food is less abundant, cockatoos began to eat the seeds of the commonest of the guavas (an introduced shrubby tree which, having overrun considerable tracts, is now treated as a pest), and thence to orange-pips was an easy step in wickedness. Gradually the habit spread north, but it was twelve years ere the innocent birds of this neighbourhood fell from grace and came under the ban of outlawry. Now they have passed to another stage of sin. Surfeited with the superabundance of the orange groves, they nip off the ripe fruit, apparently for the pleasure of watching it fall, and thus waste more than they destroy in satisfaction of hunger. Punishment is off-hand and severe; but the cockatoo is a sly bird, and often the fury of the fruit-grower expends itself in merely verbal explosions.

The deplorable scarcity of other species, such as the noisy pitta, the sunbird and the flycatchers (with one exception to be referred to), is to be debited to the great cyclone. No sunbird, one of the daintiest, liveliest and prettiest of the residents, was seen for about a year after the disaster. White-eared flycatchers disappeared mysteriously, although they had been strong in numbers, and had been regarded as one of the permanencies. They ranged from the tops of the highest trees to the lowest bushes, and during the flowering season of the tea-trees were particularly conspicuous and active. Then they could be seen at any hour of the day enjoying themselves among the bottlebrush flowers, where the buzz of insects never ceases from dawn to dark. This bird had been first seen by MacGillivray on this island in the year 1848, being described by its discoverer as “a new and handsome flycatcher.” Neither nest nor eggs have been found, but no attempt at systematic search therefor was made here, because our interest in bird-life does not lie in that direction. If the secret had been casually revealed, well and good. If not, it was enough that the bluish-grey-and-white bird, which was wont to choose the topmost twig of a garden shrub whence to announce its friendly calls and, with fluffy ruffle extended, to tell of its gladness in fluty chuckles, was one of the special features of this domain. The chief regret is not that it failed to give a clue to the solution of an ornithological secret, but that it departed from the Isle without any apparent cause. Hope of its return, however, has not been abandoned.

Another and very different class, the terns or sea-swallows, owes its serious losses to conditions as bold and as inexorable as fate, and it would be unwise to conclude that the present scarcity is anything but temporary, while accepting the facts as illustrative of events that may happen elsewhere. The terns did not assemble in great numbers until several years after the establishment of the sanctuary, their coming being attributed to its existence. Disturbed elsewhere, they had found security within its borders — such was the flattering conclusion derived from the ever-increasing population of Purtaboi, the islet in the bay. For many seasons it teemed with busy and sportful birds, living and breeding in such conglomeration of species that, were it not for extraordinary cuteness, blunders of parentage must have occasioned riots. The noisy, fussy, smelly community was accepted as a happy augury of a future when other birds would come to place themselves under protection.

Then a series of absolute checks was imposed, the final disaster occurring on 3rd February, 1920. Has it not been common knowledge from the days of the earliest observers of weather that “the sea without winde swelleth of himself sometime before the coming of the tempest,” and that, though presaging birds often give to human beings timely warning of a coming storm in advance of men of science, they on occasion fail to save themselves from the effects of an impressive combination of natural phenomena, however frequently repeated?

It may be presumptuous to assume that birds familiar with all the moods of the ocean might have anticipated the results of a heavy swell coincident with high-water spring tides — full moon occurred on the 4th — especially when generation after generation had suffered under like conditions. Be that as it may, four species of terns, absorbed in the rearing of the third brood of the tides, were overwhelmed and practically exterminated.

Above the limit of ordinary high tide half an acre of coral strand had been strewn with eggs in such profusion as to create the impression of lavishness and waste. The fledgelings, on the slightest disturbance, would crowd together like frightened lambs — they were, too, lamb-like in colour, in muteness and obedience to the herd instinct — while anxious parents directed them from above with continual cries. Then, in darkness, the surges swept the strand which had been the birthplace, the feeding and playground of successive broods, young and old being destroyed by thousands.

Next morning the beach of this island was strewn with the dead bodies of chicks. Some few had battled successfully against the waves, and now, disturbed by a sympathetic observer, waddled to the “still vex’d” water’s edge and, gazing in the direction of their native islet, made unceasing lamentation. In the mass the tones of terns are thin and shrill, but the individual voices of the derelicts — plaintive, pure and vibrant — sounded sweet and touched a tender spot. Not one whimpered, though many staggered with weakness. Each uttered its grievance against fate vigorously and with a thrill of passion, as if protesting that it had been treated callously and against the ethics of Nature. The strong, insistent, expressive plaints of the birds in their distress and weakness, and the individuality thereby betokened, contrasted strongly with common impulses of the crowd in the enjoyment of comfort at home and its silence.

Now for the effect of this harshest of lessons on the part of Nature. This year but three species of terns visited the islet. A few black-naped terns, and fewer ternlets, laid eggs on the strand, and the brown-winged — which incubates in miniature caves and grottoes and under shelving rocks, and is therefore unaffected by tidal inconstancies — had a most prosperous season, the colony dispersing stronger in numbers than ever.

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