Immigrant Song

Alphons is on the loose

Australia is jam-packed full of spectacular native birds. My wife and I have identified and largely photographed over 130 species, just in our little corner of the island continent.

So why, oh why, would I bother writing about the Common Blackbird – a stowaway from the Northern Hemisphere? An avian anomaly? An incongruous interloper?

Perhaps out of fellow feeling. I too come from a northern land of damp weather and leaf mould, of burgeoning hedgerows and dewy lawns. I too sometimes wonder how I got here.

As alien ‘pest’ species go, the blackbird seems relatively innocuous. Its main crime is that, as a tireless turner of leaf mulch, a zealous tosser of bark and twigs, it can bury little orchids and other delicate flora of the Aussie bush.

‘Alphons’ the Common Blackbird | photo courtesy of Susan

In the main, the Common or Eurasian Blackbird is happy where Aussies of Eurasian heritage are happy: well-watered, verdant parks and gardens; river bank and lake shore; the tamer parts of the bush.

Thus, in the last 160 years the species hasn’t advanced far out of Victoria. It’s clearly more of a homebody than that other European import, the intrepid and cosmopolitan rabbit.

Our garden seems to have an inordinate number of blackbirds. My wife has decided that they are all called Alphons. All the male ones, that is. The female ones are called Mrs Alphons. (Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger.)

Alphons seems to have a more outgoing personality than Mrs Alphons, befitting his dapper plumage (which Pizzey & Knight’s Birds of Australia rather meanly calls ‘dull black’) and jaunty orange beak.

He is a busy chap, darting around the garden, ever watchful over his territory. Our balcony rail is a convenient surveillance post: he rushes from one end to the other, bright eye gleaming and beak thrusting. Every once in a while he bursts into fluting, complex, slightly wistful song.

Alphons is something of a polyglot, mind. He speaks a smattering of Grey Shrike-Thrush, for example, which is beautiful to hear. Unfortunately, he seems to have acquired some Eurasian Starling also, and can sit for hours going ‘Tzzzp, tzzzp.’

He doesn’t seem interested or able to learn bluegrass, country or blues. Nor even a Bach minuet. In fact, when I sit on the veranda and play banjo, I get the distinct feeling that he resents the challenge. He may come over for a sing-off, but his voice seems to have a hostile edge to it. The rivalry is not entirely friendly, from his point of view.

When Mrs Alphons shows up, he usually cringes and scuttles off. Unless it’s ‘that time of the year’ and she’s up for a bit of nooky. Mostly, she seems to take a dim view of his male prancing about. It’s bothersome and unnecessary.

Alphons might be wary of Mrs A, but he isn’t scared of us one bit. He often supervises my wife’s gardening so closely, she almost has to shove him out of the way.

Of course, Alphons has his own agenda when it comes to gardening. We don’t begrudge him the odd worm, but he’s partial to our little lizards as well, so we’re careful when overturning rocks. I bet he catches our frogs, too, the little sod.

When there’s an Alphons Junior to feed, both Mr and Mrs A are tireless and relentless hunters. Even though we really, really, really do not want any more blackbirds in the garden, Susan and I feel sad when Alphons Junior falls prey to a magpie, currawong or butcherbird. It’s a bird-eat-bird world out there.

Despite the shameless anthropomorphism above, what I really appreciate about Alphons, as with all birds, is his other-ness. He inhabits an utterly alien world in parallel to ours.

His world is one of battles and dangers, of terrors and territorial disputes, fast sex and sudden death. His avian preoccupations are so real and concrete. His enjoyment of a luxuriant splash-around in one of our many birdbaths is a pleasure to watch.

To him, we are either a threat to keep a beady eye on, or an opportunity to be exploited. There is no place for interspecies companionship or affection in a blackbird’s world.

As I sit in my office writing lessons for students on the other side of the world, or nurse my morning tea on the balcony while I dream up another story, it’s grounding to watch Alphons going about his business.

Text and images © 2021 Steve Fendt. All rights reserved.

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