The bad mother


I seem to remember that “barbecue stopper” was a phrase coined, or at least popularised, during the Howard government; the kind of topic that the hollow men tested on focus groups to gauge the reaction of carefully selected representatives of Everyday Australia. I reckon the two words “bad mother” would not just stop a barbecue but kill it faster than slapping someone else’s child. Just type “bad mother” and “feminist theory” into Google and see how many quatrillion hits you get hit by.

Perhaps its because of the hegemony of my unreconstructed phallocentricity that the phrase popped into my head the other morning (I’d like to kid myself that it popped in there ironically, but, well …). I’d just come under the railway bridge as the four-carriage train from Dungog sped overhead when Jambo spotted Mother Duck (from my previous post) and her clutch, now reduced to four ducklings. The tide was low but there was still plenty of deepish water pooled up from the litter boom by the TAFE. But did she gather her offspring and swim away towards the tidal pool as a good mother should? No. She ran out of the water and waddled along the concrete making bewildered noises. Of course, her ducklings came squeaking pathetically behind her.


Jambo’s chased ducks before, and ducklings. On one occasion he caught a few, carried them around in his mouth and put them down, at which point the still living ducklings lay, stunned, for a few seconds for racing into the water. Not this time. This is the first time he’s actually caught and killed one. I’m hoping it was an accident.

I was baffled by Mother Duck’s behaviour. Surely the obvious thing to do was to head for deep water. And she barely even bothered with the old “ooh I’ve heart my wing – chase me instead” routine. So the other day she’d been wantonly larking around miles from cover upstream, being stalked by two ravens. And now this. No wonder she only had four ducklings left. Ok, three.

But I need to be careful at this point. It’s not a huge leap from judging the maternal instincts of a duck to developing  Malthusian theories on the virtues of public housing. The fact is, Nature just gets on with it. Unless you’re at the top of the food chain then you’re fodder for something else. The creek’s littered with dead babies, such as this gorgeous blue skink.


This young myna was still limp and must have died only moments before I came across it.


And this blue-tongue, barely more than eight inches long.


Oh, and baby birds. Always baby birds.


Of course, for every “bad mother” there’s the feckless owner of an ill-disciplined cairn terrier. But would that stop a barbecue? I’ll take it to my focus group.

The raven himself is hoarse


It’s bird week! There are all sorts of things going on. You can vote for Australia’s favourite bird through BirdLife Australia, take part in the white ibis survey, or go to one of the “breakfast with the birds” events at various centres around the country.

Some birds in the favourite bird survey have campaigners behind them, and SBS telly’s Julia Zemiro has stuck her hand up for the Australian raven.


Look, they’re clever birds all right. But maybe too clever. Maybe a bit Hitchcocky clever. John Lister-Kaye wrote about their Scottish highland relatives, the hooded crows, and a wee trick the hoodies have developed. At lambing time two hoodies find a newborn lamb. First hoodie distracts the ewe while the other pecks out one of the lamb’s eyes. Just one eye, mind. Next day they’re back with the same trick, this time taking out the second eye. I think we can all work out the life expectancy of a blind newborn lamb on a Scottish hillside. It takes a few days for the lamb to die, but time is something that hooded crows have got plenty of.


I saw a similar trick down the drain on Friday evening. Jambo and I were heading back from the gasworks when I saw a mother duck and her brood of about nine ducklings. They were very far upstream; perhaps she was taking them to the outlet by the Chatham Road bridge to feed on the water grass that grows around there. Whatever her motive, it was ill conceived. The family was very exposed – a long way from deep water and no plant cover – and a pair of ravens were stalking them along the beck, one either side. Jambo saw the ducks and charged after them and so mother duck went into “ooh ooh catch me! I’ve got a broken wing!” mode. He obliged.


At least, until I’d got him back on the lead. By the time mother duck had circled round, though, an opportunity had presented itself for the ravens. All those little ducklings! Yum yum!


The mother got back and started rounding up the littlies, but by this time they were eight. And those ravens just kept up the distraction and the triangulation. She didn’t have a chance, and neither did the ducklings. Their usual “duck and dive” routine wasn’t fooling these guys, and if I thought I might scare them off then that wasn’t going to happen either, they’d just fix me a baleful glare, flap a few feet away and start the process again.


Soon they were seven …


Six ducklings eventually made it to the cover of the culvert entrance. That’s a 33% strike rate for the ravens, an evening’s work that even they’d be pretty pleased with. One each, and one to share for dessert.


For those of you with a literary bent, here’s Lady Macbeth’s raven soliloquy with the full raven blah. They won’t be getting any votes from me.

Who’s next


Our urban world is so noisy. Our ears are endlessly assaulted by clangs and bangs and amplified tat. But once you’re in the drain the world slips away; or rather, the sound of the world slips away. The sounds I associate with the Styx are those of bird song: the up-and-down melody of willie wagtails, the harsh rasp of herons and egrets, the metallic tzing! of wrens, the liquid burbling of fuscous honeyeaters, the chesty coughs of ducks and teal. Though not this duck. If he ever had a squeak then he’d lost it by the time he turned up here.


But the other day, as I rounded the bend and headed towards the Chinchen Street bridge, I heard something I hadn’t heard in years: the violin solo that ends The Who’s Baba O’Riley. It must have been on the radio in the Big Shed, on at full blast and bouncing around inside before escaping through the wee roller door by the creek. The echoing and reverb made Dave Arbus’s electric violin even more ethereal than normal and for thirty seconds I was transported back forty years to a cruddy turntable and My Favourite LP Of All Time At That Time:  Who’s Next.


The Who was the first rock band that I became obsessed by, obsessed in that teenage way. For a few years, until punk’s Year Zero, their music was hugely influential and for a few moments on the creek bank that morning I preferred the sound of FM radio to that of honeyeaters and insectivores.

Then it ended, and an advert for carpets or doors or window tinting came on, and the spell was broken.


By the time I’d done a loop past Islington School and the weir they’d knocked the radio off and it was back to the ducks and the swallows whit whit whit across the water’s surface, pigeons cooing under the bridge and mob of ibis honking on the grass banking near the petrol depot. Normal service resumed.

Last chance to see


This is possibly the most exciting letter that any rate-payer could receive from his/her council. Look at that, under “Purpose of use”: Wheel of Death. Phwoar!


Sure enough, the signs started popping up on Donald Street bridge. Though I was a bit miffed to see that they’d started saying they’re in Hamilton. Like Hamilton hasn’t enough stuff going on already?


And finally, one Sunday morning I saw it … my first batch of pony poo!


But like all good things it must come to an end.  This weekend is your last chance to see the Wheel of Death and the miniature horses, dogs and clowns. Though, come to think of it, miniature clowns could be a bit freaky.

Go on: pamper yourself


Spring: season of creation and life-giving and fecundity. The time when everything is hatching, metamorphosing or tearing away from the placenta and gulping in their first lungfuls of atmosphere. And then, in the case of the vast majority of them, being killed and eaten by something faster, larger and more powerful.


It feels like I can’t take ten steps down the creek at the moment without happening up on a scattering of feathers in the grass, a carcass, or just the discarded pickings of a raptor kill.


The gasworks is full of life after one of the quietest winters I can remember. The rabbits are back, after disease swept through the place last year, and now Jambo gets to bolt off on his endlessly futile attempts to catch one before it disappears into the lantana. Black-shouldered kites hover in pairs above the bamboo grass and brown falcons occasionally skulk atop the naphtha tower.


We humans are adapted to living with scarcity. Fecundity, plenty and abundance are not natural states for us, and we struggle with them on the rare occasions that we meet them. We go stupid. Our myths and religions have developed in response to scarcity and most religions have an inherent asceticism: periods of self-sacrifice, abstinence and denial. We’ve been doing it for so long that it’s embedded in us.

But our contemporary world has developed  a  focus on overcoming scarcity. Plenty is the new normal. We no longer need to delay our gratification and so we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. And why wouldn’t we? We’re almost programmed to gorge ourselves, not just with food but with everything. Go on: pamper yourself.


Every year I give up the grog during Lent for … what? I don’t know. In the UK at the moment there’s a movement around “Stop-tober” and “Go-vember”. I think we yearn for limits on our otherwise insatiable appetites.


Nature doesn’t make choices like this. So this month I’d better get used to seeing more dead birds, dead rabbits, dead reptiles.

It’s weird. I don’t what or why, but it is.