I live near the middle of a city covering an area of nearly 10,000 km2 of suburban sprawl, asphalt roads and footpaths – in the tatty northern suburbs of Melbourne, 200 metres from Bell Street, a major traffic sewer. Yet despite the concrete, asphalt and spindly street trees, nature still makes her presence felt. You only need to turn the corner from Bell Street and walk a few metres along our street and the roar of the traffic recedes.
The Australian standard house block used to be a quarter acre (roughly 1,000 m2) , in my area it is more likely to be less than an eighth of an acre, yet gardens abound. As well as street plantings of native trees even small yards include bushes and trees. Camellias and hibiscus grow particularly well here, as do callistemon and pittosporum. But no matter what the plant life, bird life is prolific even in the average small yard (and one with a cat learning to hunt too).
My backyard is planted with large pittosporum, camellias of various sizes, an apricot tree, cistus, abutilons and a Marmalade Bush as well as many other smaller plants. Birds are regular visitors, some come to drink and wash in my low-lying bird bath, or to scratch around the garden beds or in the case of the wattle bird simply to torment the cat. Away from the roar of Bell Street, bird noises are ever present.
The following visitors regularly appear in my backyard. (Do click on the links to the Birds in Backyards site to hear their calls.)
House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
These unassuming birds are regular visitors. Introduced to Victoria in the 1860s they are spread across the eastern part of Australia.
Common blackbird (Turdus merula)
The blackbird is my favourite backyard visitor. Introduced in the 1850s, the male is black with a yellow bill while the female is slightly larger and mottled brown in colour.
It appears that only one pair at a time has ownership of our yard. When I am weeding the male will hop along about three feet away from me having a good fossick in the upturned earth.
Blackbirds have regularly nested in the Dr Clifford Parkes camellia near our back door. The first lot of fledglings each year have died, the second hatching producing only one bird. Three years ago, when the solitary fledgling left the nest, we had to exercise vigilance with our eighteen year old cat, Xena, who saw a bird she thought she could actually catch. We now have a young cat with a taste for hunting and the blackbirds appear to have sensibly decided to nest elsewhere.
Spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis)
The call of the dove is constant sound in our backyard. Another introduced species, it is prevalent throughout eastern Australia.
Our current cat, thirteen-month-old Baroness Dustini von Cattenbacker (named by committee but commonly answers to Dusty) regularly stalks the doves. She thinks her hunting skills quite excellent as her success with flies is extraordinary. Her only success so far has been a mid-air collision with a dove which resulted in the bird flying away and Dusty sitting on the ground looking quite bemused.
Red wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata)
The red wattlebird is a honeyeater with reddish wattles on the side of the neck and grey-brown plumage. It is found throughout the southern areas of the Australian mainland. It has quite a raucous call. These visitors to our yard enjoy an enthusiastic dip in the bird bath; the crack as they flap the moisture out of their wings is sharp and can be heard inside the house. They also seem to enjoy tormenting the cat, squawking down on it from above and occasionally swooping which sends the cat scurrying indoors.
Rainbow lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus)
The rainbow lorikeet is a distinctive bird with a bright red beak and vibrant plumage in blue, green and orange. It is native to the coastal regions across northern and eastern Australia. It lives off nectar and pollen from the flowers of shrubs or trees as well as fruits, seeds and some insects. These birds regularly visit to feed on the seed branches of our neighbour’s palm trees which overhang the fence. The lorikeets travel in flocks and have a strident call which makes you aware when they are visiting.
Grey butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus)
A solitary grey butcherbird visits around once or twice a year, often in late autumn – I have no idea why it comes. It sits high in the bare branches of the apricot tree and sings; the butcherbird’s song is quite beautiful. It is a native species and is found from mid-eastern Queensland, through southern Australia to Tasmania, as well as northern Western Australia. The butcherbird acquired its name from its habit of storing uneaten food by impaling it on the fork or a branch of a tree or bush.
Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen)
The Australian magpie is a black and white bird found across most of Australia. They are usually found in pairs and spend a lot of time foraging on the ground. In spring, when nesting, they can be quite aggressive and often attack passers by. They have a beautiful and distinctive warbling song.
Sulphur crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita)
The sulphur crested cockatoo is a white parrot with a black beak and yellow on its crest and the underside of its wings. They are found all the way down the eastern side of Australia. They fly in large flocks making a raucous screeching cry which is good warning of their approach as they can be quite destructive. I have seen a flock strip the neighbour’s almond tree of both leaves and nuts within a matter of minutes. Fortunately they fly over rather than descend on our garden.
Magpie lark (Grallina cyanoleuca)
The magpie lark has black and white markings similar to the Australian magpie but is smaller and no relation. A native bird, it is spread throughout Australia. It doesn’t appear in our yard often and I suspect those that do are on their way to the local lake where there are quite a number.
Pied currawong (Strepera graculina)
The pied currawong is another irregular visitor. It is a largish black bird with white tips to the tail and wing feathers, as well as a bright yellow eye. Another native bird, it is found down the eastern side of Australia. Its distinctive call always evokes the bush for me.
Australian raven(Corvus coronoides)
Commonly know as a crow, the Australian raven is black with white eyes when adult. It is spread throughout eastern, southern and central Australia and has a distinctive cawing cry. It is considered one of the most intelligent forms of bird life. They are one of the few creatures that have got the better of the worst of introduced species, the cane toad.
Dusty, with her excellent leaping skills, thought a crow sitting on the clothes line fair game but the crow got bored and flew away. I suspect that, in any confrontation, it would be Dusty who came off second best.
Common myna (Acridotheres tristis)
This bird was first introduced into Victoria the 1860s but there have been several other introductions in various parts of Australia, including in the 1880s in Queensland to control insects on the cane fields. It is a member of the starling family and has a brown body with a black head and yellow bill and legs, as well as distinctive yellow markings around they eyes. They are always found in pairs (they mate for life) and are something of a pest as they aggressively eject native birds from their nests to make use of them themselves.
And finally, not native, not a bird but definitely a garden inhabitant some of the time.