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Useful And Fantastic: Garden Wildlife

Val Yule tells tales about the wildlife in her garden.

A mysterious Banded Rail, a beautiful rare swamp bird, came to live for three summers in our wild cottage garden, which was full of jungle along the fence in which it could hide. It is a pretty, dainty bird, smaller than a bantam but behaving like one, with long thin beak and legs, Cleopatra eye-makeup, banded black and white throat and stomach with orange cummerbund half-way down, and browny-black-white- mottled back feathers like a brown duck.

First came two adults, one with orange neckwear, and than later four smaller ones with striped stomachs. They scuttled around, and I could get to within one foot of them. This lack of fear may make them vulnerable to cats and rats, especially as they are basically ground birds and ground-nesting.

Later just three birds were rustling around in the garden. One became quite tame, and even ate out of my hand once. It sometimes sat on the roof and came down when it saw me. It liked having a bath in the small bird-bath - flapping its wings, or just standing in the water. These birds are well camouflaged, and you hear them scuttling in the undergrowth before you see them. I left out a little budgie seed for them from time to time but not enough to make them dependent. I saw them eating seeds from the grasses.

I never heard them make a sound - only the rustling in the undergrowth. When frightened, they did not fly; they ran, with their heads bobbing forward and their tails going up and down like bantams. When they flew, their legs trailed.

The fourth year none came, but a pair (including my Bird?) was trying to nest in the local bushland park, we fear with little success, in view of the dogs.

But for the next two springs, a wild brown duck nested among the vinca and jasmine. The two parents would fly down over our garden like low-flying jumbo-jets.

Then one morning, there would be a tremendous quacking and squeaking outside our kitchen window - and there was Mother Duck shepherding about eight fluffy little balls round the side of our house. When they came to the side fence, she sat on the fence, urging her babies to go under it, and then she flew over it.

One year, we were able to be the policemen helping them out to cross the road to the pond in the wild-bush reserve. Next year, I was alone, and the cars were having their early morning rush. The neighbors were rushing to work or still in their pajamas. The mother duck was shepherding the brood to and fro anxiously. Luckily a car with two young children aged about 6 and 8 slowed to watch them, and the children and their father helped direct the ducks and her trail of ducklings to the road edge, and held up the traffic while they trotted across. (What a nice Morning Talk school that day!)

I looked at their nest among the jasmine at my back fence - round and soft with tiny feathers - only two bits of eggshell left - and a duck's trail plonking across squashed plants to the side fence.

But the next year, alas, rats got at the eggs in the jungle. Mother duck flew out screaming squawks. Later we saw her going up and down the street, exploring gardens to try to find some safe spot for a new nest, while her husband, wings tucked behind him like the Duke of Edinburgh, trailed a few paces behind her. Let's hope she found a place.

Native birds and animals are not chauvinistic. They love exotic plants as well as Australian natives, so do not fear that they will flee your roses, camellias, lemons, fruit trees, silver-birch and creepers.

If you really want to encourage native birds and little creatures, you must DO SOMETHING about the predators that are driving them to extinction - the cats, dogs, rats, foxes, automotive road-killers, yes, and the native predators such as currawongs and the native crows that love to fly down the street with baby birds in their beaks. I find little fluffy feathers, sometimes marked with lorikeet colors, dropped as predators fly over my garden.

Over the years all the small birds have disappeared from my garden, and the major local birds are now only crows (in bands of up to fifty at the shopping-centre), magpies, pigeons, wattle-birds, mynahs, kookaburras and lorikeets. When a newspaper writer thought she still had little birds in the garden because she saw the broken shells on her paths, what she saw was the pieces that predators dropped as they flew off with the nestlings. Protection of far-too-flourishing native predators seems to me silly, even stupid, when we humans and our fellow exterminators are making the top of the food-chain top heavy.

Stone the crows, I say. They play no useful part at the top of the foodchain of birdlife here - our cars and foxes and rats and our own thoughtlessness keep the populations of the small birds down anyway without any more help from crows


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