Can you see any bird?
By Phoebus, no! and yet I am straining my eyesight to scan the sky.
Aristophanes, Birds, 263-4
Ordinarily, our garden in Canberra is a veritable aviary. The early mornings are filled with a chorus of tweeting and cooing as fairy wrens, blackbirds and crested pigeons send their notes into the sweet morning air. Depending on the season, we are accustomed to seeing flocks of cockatoos, parrots and rosellas, squawking and streaking across a clear blue sky. In the evening, the magpies always take a stately walk across our lawns until the currawongs swoop in for a last minute meal. One Saturday morning, we watched a young kookaburra feeding on lawn grubs and swinging on our swing! We still talk about the night we saw a majestic and rare powerful owl in our back garden.
I am not a trained ornithologist but I am a friend of birds – birds delight me and remind me that although we humans think we are so clever, we remain chained to the earth. As the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes says, birds are so much closer to the heavens than we are. They have a better perspective than we do and they have extraordinary memories and powers of intelligence:
Weak mortals, chained to the earth, creatures of clay as frail as the foliage of the woods, you unfortunate race, whose life is but darkness, as unreal as a shadow, the illusion of a dream, hearken to us, who are immortal beings, ethereal, ever young and occupied with eternal thoughts, for we shall teach you about all celestial matters;  you shall know thoroughly what is the nature of the birds, what the origin of the gods, of the rivers, of Erebus, and Chaos; thanks to us, even Prodicus will envy you your knowledge.
Aristophanes, Birds 685-90
Today is the second day of hazardous and toxic air in Canberra. The air quality rating is 3045 – a rating of 200 is deemed to be hazardous. We have been told to remain indoors with doors and windows closed, not to venture outside and to purify our own air with whatever means are available. I haven’t been outside today, nor have my children. I can’t imagine how choking the air must be for those that have to be outside.
When I woke at 5am this morning, the sky was blood red. As the sun rose, it shifted to orange, golden, and then a dusky, murky grey. The sunlight was being filtered through a thick layer of smoke. It was eerily quiet. No cheerful bird song, no flocks winging their way across the sky. Just an empty and desolate grey outside.
The smoke has blown into Canberra from the fires raging on the South Coast. This stretch of coast was beautiful and it is home to so many kind and gentle souls. That stretch of coast was also my childhood playground in summers long ago and a favourite spot for our recent family holidays. I know each beach like the back of my hand. Settlements have now been burnt to the ground, from north to south, east to west, right up to the low scrubby plants that dot the sand dunes. Some of the smoke has also come in from our beloved snowfields in the other direction, ordinarily a place of relief from the Summer heat, they too are burning as I write. Birds and animals are dying all around us in their thousands. Evacuees are huddling in Canberra, anxiously awaiting news about their homes and properties.
For centuries, the ancient Greeks interpreted bird signs as omens of good fortune or misfortune. Zeus is depicted with the eagle, a symbol of his power and authority; Athena with the owl, a symbol of wisdom and insight. Ancient Greek people would consult bird omens before making any important decision – only if the omens were favourable would they proceed. The ancient reliance on augury is well represented in some of the oldest Greek texts we have:
Happy and fortunate the man who knows all these things and goes about his work without offending the immortals, interpreting bird signs rightly and avoiding transgressions.
Hesiod, Works and Days 822–28
A bird had appeared to them as they were eager to advance, a high-flying eagle, skirting the army on the left, holding in its talons a monstrous blood-red snake, alive and still writhing. Nor had the snake given up the fight, but it twisted back on itself and struck the eagle gripping it on the breast by the neck; and the eagle in sharp pain dropped it to the ground, so that it fell among the throng, while with a loud cry he soared away on the currents of air. The Trojans shuddered when they saw the gleaming snake lying among them, a portent from almighty Zeus.
Homer, Iliad XII 200–08
In January 2020, the bird omens, if you choose to read them as such, are not good. The bushfire crisis has caused immeasurable devastation to humans, wildlife, property, infrastructure and land. We will be living with the consequences for a long time to come.
I recently read a blog post from a survivor on the South Coast. Taking a walk along a desolate and ash-strewn beach, he counted dozens of dead birds before turning back in despair and horror. These birds had tried to escape the flames and smoke of the burning forest, only to be caught in turbulent air currents out at sea, thrust down into ashen waters and washed up on a deserted shoreline.
The common Australian magpie, an icon of Australia, has learnt to mimic the sound of a fire engine siren. Whilst some are amazed at the magpie’s intelligent mimicry, others (including myself) are horrified by it. How many sirens does a bird need to hear before it forsakes its own natural birdsong?
As birds drop dead out of the sky, giant man-made bird-like machines are being sent into the sky to dump water on fires, drop off satellite phones and supplies, evacuate people from remote areas, and monitor fire conditions. This is the best we can do – trying to navigate the smoke-filled skies ourselves in efforts to save whoever and whatever we can.
In my own backyard, we keep the children’s wheelbarrow filled with water for the few birds that are still with us. The bird visitors look exhausted and desperate. A honeyeater sits with its beak open, wings spread, panting as it tries to shelter from the 44 degree heat; skylarks flutter down briefly and then disappear again; a noisy myna bird is unusually quiet; and an ominous black crow dives through the smoke to steal a drink.
There is no subtlety in the signs that are appearing before our eyes. This country is genuinely in crisis. If this is a sign of things to come, it is a portent of disaster. Time will tell if our so-called leaders are intelligent enough to read the signs and to change accordingly or whether, as Aristophanes says, we all prove to be “creatures of clay as frail as the foliage of the woods”.
Help for Fire Service: https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/volunteer/support-your-local-brigade
Help for Wildlife: https://www.rspcansw.org.au/bushfire-appeal/
1. Australia fires create plume of smoke (independent.co.uk)
2. A Roman relief depicting the eagle of Zeus abducting Ganymede (Source: Wikimedia Commons)