My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXI

Socialistic Birds

Repeated observations and diary records have established August 12th as the beginning of the local “bird season.” About that date two of the most notable birds arrive from the North — the nutmeg pigeon (MYRISTICIVORA SPILORRHOA) and the metallic starling (CALORNIS METALLICA). Having spent five months in Papua, Java, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula, the former revisit the islands for incubating purposes.

Where the metallic starlings spend their retreat I know not; but they return with impetuous haste, as if absence had been disciplinary and not for pleasure. They assemble in glittering throngs, shrilly discussing their plans for the season, without reserve debating important concerns of house and home. Shall the tall Moreton Bay ash in the forest be again occupied and the shabby remnants of old nests designedly destroyed before departure last season be renovated, or shall a new settlement be established and the massive milkwood-tree overtopping the jungle be selected as a capital site? Discussion is acidulous and constant. For days the majority of the burnished citizens do little else but talk, while the industrious few begin, some to build nests on the sites of the old, others to lay hasty foundations among the leaves of the milkwood. Each faction wishes to carry its point, for ever and anon both rejoin the main body and proclaim and testify. Then all adjourn to the disputed sites successively and join in frantic commotion until some sage makes an entirely original proposition, and off they all go on a flight of inspection and abruptly end all differences of opinion by favouring a tree which appears to have no distinctive merits.

These delightfully engaging birds have been known to nest in a particular tree for a quarter of a century, and again they may select a different site every year. Though I have no evidence in confirmation of the theory, I am inclined to think that arboreal snakes are influential in causing changes. Although the domed nests must be difficult for even a snake to enter so large a congregation of noisy birds would inevitably attract these slim nocturnal marauders.

Moreover, a case may be cited in support of the theory. In a Moreton Bay ash (EUCALYPTUS TESSELARIS), not far from this spot, there nested a pair of white-headed sea eagles, a pair of cockatoos, and a colony of metallic starlings, four or five hundred strong. The memory of man knows not the first settlement of this amicable community, which remained until during temporary absence the blacks were suborned to climb the tree to secure the eggs of the eagle. They also helped themselves to a few of the callow starlings. The sea eagles and cockatoos discarded the tree forthwith, and the starlings in a couple of years. And why? Because, in my opinion at least, the eagles had policed the tree, killing offhand any green or grey snake which had the stupidity to sneak among the nests. When the policemen went to another beat the snakes took to frightening the unprotected birds and to the burgling of their nest. This incident caused a revision of the protective laws. They are much more explicit, and the pains and penalties for the violation of them are now absolutely unholy in their truculence.

During the 1909 season a serious diminution was noted in the number of metallic starlings and nutmeg pigeons. In the case of the former I am at a loss to account for the cause of the comparatively few visitors — always highly esteemed and admired and preserved from interference — except on the theory of the outbreak of an epidemic or in the possible fact that they are falling victims to the feminine passion for fine feathers.

The Grouse Disease Commission has found a recognised period in the fluctuations of the number of those game birds. During a cycle of sixty years there recur the good year, the very good year, the record year, the bad disease year, the recovery, the average, and the good average. The round is said to be almost invariable. So may it be with the metallic starling.

With the nutmeg pigeons the case is different. Here we have direct evidence of the desolating effects of the interference of man. Congregating in large numbers on the islands to nest, and only to nest, these birds offer quite charming sport to men with guns. They are the easiest of all shooting. Big and white, and given to grouping themselves in cloudy patches on favourable trees, I have heard of a black boy, with a rusty gun, powder, and small stones for shot, filling a flour-sack full during an afternoon. It is, therefore, not strange that men shoot 250 in an hour or so. The strange thing is that “men” boast of such butchery. On the very island where this bag Of 250 was obtained a little black boy, twelve years old, killed four pigeons with a single sweep of a long stick. He did not boast — to his father and mother and himself the four birds represented supper; but in the case of the sportsman it might be asked, how many of the butchered doves went into the all-redeeming pot?

These pigeons are one of the natural features of the coast of North Queensland, in the conservation of which the State and the Commonwealth are concerned. It may be contended that the extermination of a species represented by such multitudes is impossible. But while the history of the passenger pigeon of North America is extant such argument carries no weight.

When the birds are, so to speak, shot on their nests or sitting in their crowded dormitories a whole season’s natural increase may be discounted by an afternoon’s wretched “sport.” If nutmeg pigeons are to be preserved as one of the attractions and natural features of the coast of North Queensland, extensive sanctuaries must be established. Strict prohibition might be enforced for a period of, say, five years to enable the colonies to regain their population, and thenceforward they might — if the shooting of sitting birds is still deemed to be “sport”— be allowed a “jubilee” every second year.

If the unrestricted molestation is permitted, the day is not far distant when indignation will arise and lovers of Nature will ask passionately why a unique feature of the coast was allowed to be obliterated in blood. True sportsmen would unanimously rejoice in the permanent preservation of birds elegant and swift of flight, not very good to eat, and which visit us at a time when inhospitality is a wanton crime.

For this indulgence of my feelings I have, I am aware, laid myself open to censure. It is foreign to, indeed, quite out of place in, a book which professes neither message nor mission. Yet, mayhap, some kindred spirit having influence and judicious eloquence at command may read these lines. Then the birds need not much longer fear the naughty local man. Long may the dulcet islands within the Barrier Reef burst morn and eve into snowy bloom as the pigeons go and come!

So having soothed my fretfulness by irresponsible scolding, consigned countless white pigeons to inviolable sanctuary and thereby confirmed to perpetuity the charter under which a bustling interchange of seeds and the kernels of fruit-trees between isle and mainland is maintained, I am at liberty to chronicle certain every-day incidents in the establishment of a colony by those other companionable birds, metallic starlings, also under engagement to Nature as distributing agents.

Whereas the bulk of the traffic of the pigeons is with the mainland, that of the metallic starlings is purely local, though, perhaps, just as important. The insular communities do not venture for their merchandise across the water, and those of the mainland have no dealings with the isles.

Reference has been made to the disappointment occasioned by the violation of a colony at the instance of a semi-professional egg-snatcher, and of the subsequent abandonment of the tree which had been used as a building site by the birds as far back as the memory of the blacks went.

The tree was in the midst of the forest, and season after season upon the return of the members of the colony they assembled in the vicinity, but never again built in the neighbourhood. Last season, however, the pent-up exasperation of years found a certain sort of relief, for a new colony was started in a Moreton Bay ash-tree not a hundred yards away and in full view from my veranda. There are five other colonies of these socialistic, disputative birds on this Island; but they happen to be in out-of-the-way spots, where continuous detailed observation of their habits and customs would be impossible. Hence, when I saw the noisy throng gather together discussing the imperious business of nesting, I watched with eager and hopeful anticipation. About the third day from the first demonstration in favour of the particular tree building operations began, and thenceforward daily notes were taken of the doings of the colony. Great pleasure was found in being the spectator of the establishment of a new colony.

In 1908 the earliest arrivals appeared, on August 2nd — eight days before the herald of the nutmeg pigeons. The colony the history of which it is proposed to relate was no doubt an offshoot of the first brood of those which had arrived on that date. Circumstances exist which persuade me that the shining Calornis rear two broods during the season. Nutmeg pigeons rear as many as three young successively.

Just about the time the site of the new colony was selected young birds were fairly numerous, so that it seems safe to assume that, expelled from parental nests, they determined to set up an establishment on their own account forthwith. In their industry they seemed to display the defects and advantages of the quality of youth — enthusiasm, impulsiveness and vigour, inexperience, haste, and irrelevance.

Let the diary notes tell of the enterprise as scrutinised through the telescope:

Nov. 15. Shining Calornis (all young birds, mottled grey and black with green sheen on back) busy surveying tree (Moreton Bay ash) on plateau to the north.

16. Birds seem inclined to build.

17. Notice that the birds are in pairs; no old, full-plumaged among them.

18. First beginning of nests. About thirty birds. All seem very excited and full of business.

20. Several nests well forward. Other parts of the tree now being occupied.

22. Seventeen nests; some nearly complete

23. Eighteen nests; several apparently complete, save for the overhanging entrance. Many quarrels and squabbles in the family, for the nests are in groups and in close quarters.

27. Three new nests, or rather foundations thereof.

Dec. 1. Now 25 nests. Those which appeared to be near completion are still being added to. Many have entrances, so that one of the pair works from inside, placing and threading the materials. Sometimes one sits for a long time with the head protruding, as if testing the comfort of the nest. Squabbles are frequent. The backs of some betray a lovely green sheen in the sunshine, with rich purple at the base of the neck.

4. After two days’ heavy rain the birds are as busy as ever. Many flirtations. The great want of the colony seems to be insect powder.

5. The tree now is in full flower. I watch the birds making feints at bees and butterflies visiting the blooms but they do not seem to catch insects. Fruit, seeds, and nuts form their diet. The nests, which are composed of tendrils and pliant twigs elaborately intertwined, are domed, and in size somewhat less than a football.

6. Birds very busy. Most of the nests appear to be fit for habitation. Work is suspended at sundown. They do not roost in the tree. Have not detected their resting-place; but it seems to be some distance in the jungle.

7. Sunset (6.45). The birds disappeared from vicinity of the tree almost immediately, though twilight lasted half an hour.

8. Three minutes before sunrise (5.48) birds’ voices heard as they approached trees. They were in three or four companies in a bloodwood-tree, where they flirted and fussed and made violent love; then in a trailing mob flew noisily and began work in haste and excitement, one eager bird manipulating a long, slender, partly dry leaf, industriously trying to fit it in various spots. Finding its due place, the limp leaf was thrust in among the compact twigs and tendrils. The leaf was seized close to the stalk, which was deftly inserted, then it was gripped a trifle farther back and pushed and re-gripped, the process being repeated rapidly until nothing but the tip remained visible.

9. Most of the exterior of the nests is now finished. Work continues briskly on the lining, though the material used therefor does not seem to be different from the bulk. When one of a pair has disappeared inside of the tunnel-like entrance, if the other arrives it clings to the threshold until its mate emerges, and then briskly enters. This evening work was suspended at 6.40 — cloudy. A few butterflies still flitting about the flowers.

10. Another new nest. As with the others, a few tendrils are laid across dependent sprays of leaves, engaging and intertwining them. These represent the foundations upon which the superstructure is partly built, but both sides and dome are made to entangle other frail branches and leaves, so that the nest is supported throughout its various parts. A considerable quantity of material is lost from each nest, owing to the difficulty of contriving to make initial tendrils engage the leaves and pedicels. The space for the circular entrance is sketched out at quite an early stage. In this colony with few exceptions it faces the south, and is so overhung by a veranda as to be undiscernible except from immediately below.

The situation of the nests on the extremities of the outermost branches, parts of some being lower than the leaves to which they are attached, is no doubt an illustration of acquired sagacity. Such impetuous birds living in large communities, and thus compounding a savour calculated to attract arboreal snakes, would in the course of nature take precautions. The nests in position and design represent the crystallisation of the wit of the bird in antagonism to the wile of the snake.

In the morning, fuss, fierce purpose, and hurry are shown. As the afternoon wears on, less and less industry prevails. Work is suspended at 6.45 p.m. when the last of the crowd hastily departed. Before sundown all are spent and weary. Some of the birds begin to darken on the sides of the upper part of the breasts. The purple sheen on the back of the neck is more brilliant. There is a glowing patch, too, at the base of the tail, though the other parts of the back are dingy with a green tinge in reflected light. The nuptial costume is fast becoming, more attractive.

14. Nests were not deserted until 7.30 p.m. The last half-dozen birds, alert and anxious, dashed off upon a common impulse noisily. They roost in the jungle adjoining.

15. A more sedate condition prevails in the demeanour of the birds, due peradventure to domestic responsibilities. Fewer are about, and they spend leisure moments on the top of or near the nests, while others pop in and out. Are these signs of the beginning of egg-laying?

17. Egg-laying undoubtedly begins, though improvements to nests, which seemed to be finished over a week ago, occupy odd moments.

20. Two past days have been dull and showery. Quietude reigns; a tendril or twig is occasionally threaded or poked into the nests. The male muses on the top of the nest, or closely adjacent thereto. The female pops in and out of apparently cosy quarters. Circumstances point to the conclusion that most of the nests contain eggs.

21. Good deal of rain, which bothers the birds. They play about excitedly in one company. Towards evening very few are about. The nests are deserted, though five or six birds in one mob are in a neighbouring tree.

22. Heavy rain and never-ceasing squalls. No sign of the birds, though a few notes of passers-by were heard. Finer evening.

23. Fine and calm. Nests deserted all morning. Late afternoon many returned, though not, I think, the full company. They seem to be inspecting and repairing the nests.

24. Did not see any of the birds.

25. At 3 p.m. several appeared — some entering the nests two at a time, though without customary fuss and excitement.

26. Full company in possession throughout the day. Several (which are assumed to be males) are better plumaged, the breasts being streaked with black, and the backs much more lustrous.

27. Serious business of incubation deprives the colony of customary gaiety and impulsiveness. While the female sits close, the male perches on top of the nest, occasionally beguiling the time by inconsequent repairs and petty squabbles with next door neighbours. How brilliant are their eyes, especially when they sparkle with spite — flame red and flashing.

28. I am astonished at the sobering effect of pending domestic troubles. Is it that the sitting hen is responsible for the great part of the gaiety and impulsiveness, as well as for the quibbles and brawls that often disturb the happy family? Whatever the cause, whoever responsible, order and tranquillity reign, each expectant father spending hours demurely on his respective nest, a model of staid deportment, though ever ready to resent intrusion on the part of a friend. Portending cares sit heavily on the young and inexperienced colonists.

29. All quiet and industrious. Fancy that the chicks are well forward — rather to my surprise.

Jan. 2. Very rainy all morning. Did not see any of the birds until the weather cleared. Though the nests looked sodden, the owners were cheerful and noisy — a tone of pleasure because of the return of the sunshine being, as I fancied, noticeable.

3. Busy all day. At 6.45 a.m. all gathered in a company on the topmost branches, and after two or three preliminary flights to the accompaniment of much commotion and chattering, dashed into the jungle with a unanimous and most acidulous shriek. One of the nests is hanging in shreds.

4. This morning the birds were engaged for some little time pulling their nests to pieces, strands of tendrils being jerked out and cast away with a contemptuous fling. Most are still fairly rotund and compact, and appear to be weather-proof, while others are already loopholed and ragged. The duty was performed in a most haphazard, halfhearted way. Beneath the tree are many varieties of seeds and nuts, and portions of fruits, but no egg-shells. After the members of the colony had swooped and swept about as if practising military manoeuvres, sometimes silently but generally to the accompaniment of much shrieking in unison, the tree was entirely deserted for the rest of the afternoon.

5. Before 7 a.m. dismantlement of nests was resumed with enthusiasm and deliberate purpose, shreds being twitched out and cast down. A good deal of chatter. There are a few completely feathered youngsters, the breasts being almost pure white, but not more than one to each nest. Most of the nests have no output, in which case the responsible birds have no assistance in the work of destruction. Late in the afternoon all were very busy again, repairs to nests engaging attention. The birds are so unsettled that I am puzzled. Occasionally one would sit in a semi-dismantled nest snoodling down cosily and peering out with shining eyes, the glow and glitter of which from the darksome entrance have a jewel-like effect. While the one sat close and still the mate would repair the exterior, and in a flash of electric suddenness all would dart out of the tree to swoop about as if to perfect themselves in an exercise designed towards the evasion of the dash of a hawk.

6. Early again the wrecking of the nests began; but was soon abandoned, the colony being deserted for the last part of the day.

7. Demolition very casual. The birds are averse from working in the rain, and, to-day several showers have occurred.

8. Notwithstanding light rain the duty of demolition began at 6.30 a.m. As much energy and purpose are expended withdrawing the strands by a series of tugs as were displayed in the building. Occasionally the whole branch from which the nest is pendant sways with the work of a single bird, the eyes of which glitter the more fiercely as it pulls and jerks at an obstinate strand. Twenty-five birds are counted, so it would seem that the enterprise has failed in respect of increase. No doubt some are absent. Both young and old birds take part in the work of destruction. One, I notice, has a black blotch on his otherwise mottled breast, while his back shines with the polished radiance of a soap-bubble.

9. Tree visited at odd intervals — not at all during early morning. Dismantlement proceeds half-heartedly.

10. Very early, the morning being fine and clear, the birds resumed in a playful, lackadaisical way the demolition of the nests; without apparent cause, save the shriek of a passing cockatoo, they fled into the jungle. Did not see them again until late in the afternoon.

11. Again the birds visited the reserve early. Shortly before sundown I counted sixteen. They were resting silently on the sodden remains of the nests, for there have been heavy showers; some were picking idly at loosened strands as if merely to beguile time. Now and again they fly briskly and noisily in close company — always “diagonalising.” Failure to add largely to the population of birds does not seem to have damped the gaiety and impulsiveness of the erratic flights. They are as sprightly in their confabulations and as spiteful in their squabbles. The founders of the colony were, I am convinced, this season’s birds. If so they could not have been more than two months old when they began to build. The young brood from old-established colonies hatched out just about two months before these appeared.

12. Yesterday’s occupations and recreations repeated. The inheritance of parasitic intruders, to cut off which the nests are torn to pieces, now depends on unsubstantialities.

13. This morning, the flock assembled at break of day, and began, some to extricate tendrils from, others to repair woebegone nests. When the sun shone on the tree the plumage of the birds gleamed with almost dazzling iridescence, the shoulders green, the back of the neck purple and lake of the richest hue.

14. One casual visit to the tree was observed.

15. No visit.

16. No appearance until late in the afternoon, when four, wildly flying, settled for a few minutes and departed shrieking. The tree is not now a home, merely a rendezvous.

And so the history ends. Next August, no doubt, the surviving members of the colony will return, all fully feathered in glossy black, and with eyes aflame, to complete the destruction of the nests — according to habit — and build afresh.

Dec. 10 (1910). True to attributes, the bird’s returned yesterday. To-day the one nest which had withstood a year’s buffeting was demolished offhand, and twenty-two are now being built with frantic haste.

Dec. 12. To the solidification of the joy of the Isle no less than four new colonies are being established close at hand, the very tree which was raided years ago being again occupied by a jubilant and clamorous crowd. One of the new colonies is over one hundred nests strong. Does this regeneration signify the beginning of a favourable phase analogous to that discovered by the commission previously referred to in respect of grouse?

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