Trees and what they’re for
by Robert Parker
My wife and I disagree about a lot of things, but we are united in being contrary. Almost a religion, this little used word expresses much about us, including our garden. Where the homes in the rest of our neighborhood are slowly defoliating as precious space is used to build decks, ensuites and alfresco dining, our little home is surrounded and dominated by our arboreal monsters. They were not monstrous when they were planted, though my wife did warn me that they might grow. I disregarded this warning and carefully planted the darling little twigs in all the wrong places.
I chose my home (pre-family) for two features. It had about a dozen trees and a view – if you stand on the roof. I have out-lived most of these trees and only the liquid amber still thrives as it reaches into the sky far above our house (and occasionally ventures downwards into the drains). I have placated this tree by digging a fish pond. It didn’t start as a fish pond. It started as a search for the drains. I eventually found them – directly under the tree and the tree wasn’t going anywhere. By this time I had such a lovely hole, it seemed a shame to fill it. So now the hole harbours a number of goldfish, a terrapin called Shellby, and a number of tree roots. The tree is thirsty and the water level goes down rapidly on a hot day.
When I moved in, there was also a beautiful and massive claret ash by the front steps. But twenty years of drought has caused this to die back, so now only the considerable trunk remains, which I stubbornly refuse to remove it. Even dead trees are useful. A native tree might be even more useful, but birds from all over our valley used to flock to the tall bare limbs of our dying tree. They sat up there and advertised the easy parking to all their friends. Sadly the tree was becoming a perceived hazard and one day a tree surgeon knocked on our door – his card read “the tree terminator”. Under the stern gaze of my other half, I relented. Within minutes, the tree terminator’s family had appeared and while the youngest manipulated the chainsaw, the women of the family stacked the logs directly below him with a reckless disregard for health and safety. They were very efficient and the bird port was gone.
The wisteria tree clearly also loved the claret ash for it fell over in sympathy when the next gust came through. Those scars have almost disappeared from our forest, and while the yellow-crested cockatoos come less often, there are still plenty of other visitors.
Before my wife decided to cut down our silver birch (for reasons still disputed on an annual basis – refer “contrary” above), a tawny frogmouth perched in it for several days, apparently not realising that the birch’s white trunk made it’s dark brown plumage very obvious. Normally the only way to spot a tawny is when other birds mob it. The tawny can do a very good impression of a piece of wood. I almost stepped on one once. They are very cute in family groups as the youngsters can’t keep still to save themselves.
I favour deciduous trees, as our winters are cold enough to strip these trees of all their leaves and restore the “view” from our patio. The wife has planted some incredibly slow growing conifers (again refer to “contrary” above), but these have their boons. A family of Gang Gang cockatoos visited these conifers to eat the tiny pine nuts and the birds were so tame that we could get quite close. There was a mother and father and two playful chicks. Even I could spot the father and son as the males have bright red heads with the characteristic cockatoo plume on top. The two chicks played for a while swinging on our tomato stakes before joining their parents for a crunchy meal of nuts. You can always tell where a Gang Gang has visited by the litter of shells beneath the tree.
We also get crimson rosella and king parrots. The latter particularly love the fruit of the melia tree, a deciduous native. The fruit are supposedly toxic but we see no evidence of dead parrots, so presumably the birds have a source of antidote.
When I first came to what would become our home, magpies were the dominant species. They do prefer well watered lawns for the worms, so my brittle tusocks left them unimpressed, but when they were well fed, they would fly up into my trees for a good sing song. After my resident horticulturist had moved in, things changed rapidly. Apart from a steady supply of stolen dog food and table scraps, the magpies would follow her progress through the garden and thought her compost mulch very scratchable.
The original magpie tribe had an unusual feature. Many of the tribe (surely flock doesn’t apply to a family?) had a short top or bottom beak – I can’t remember which. This didn’t appear to overly worry them and they stayed around for many years before they were finally displaced by another tribe. Tribal warfare is frequent in the magpie world.
Many years later, one of the magpie chicks grew up with a fear of flying. Despite our cat and dogs, or because of them, this magpie hardly ever left our little but overgrown garden. It was a good singer and would hop from the patio (after a meal of dog food) onto the railing, then onto the Virginia creeper and then finally onto its favorite perch in the tree house tree. There it would sit and recite its own unique melody, different from all other magpies.
The tree house tree was once an ornamental pear, but drought and elm beetles have done it in. It remains, surrounded by a three story folly of a tree house and is used by one of our two resident possums as an aerial highway. The original possum box was in the claret ash until one night … I found the possum box still intact under a heavy branch with the possum, apparently unscathed, still inside. I wonder if it ever slept soundly again.
The wife sometimes feeds the possums but we don’t actually feed the birds—they steal the dog food when our overfed hound(s) is/are not looking. Most of our dogs are hopeless at catching anything and the birds seem well aware of their limits. They are very wary of the cat, but oddly our cat is not at all interested in birds—only rats are on its menu, which is great except when it brings them inside. I am not overly catish, but Pussil is as good a cat as you can get. Now that the last dog is senile, it even head butts the dog.
After a few months with our flightless magpie wandering around the garden, we came into Currawong season. These large birds are basically the same size as the Australian magpie and tend to disappear for half of the year. But a few Currawongs are not travellers and stick around. One of these started following the flightless magpie around the yard. When the magpie would stand on the lawn, one foot forward, listening and feeling for a worm and then driving its beak into the ground to pull out a wriggly meal, there would be the Currawong, imitating its action, with almost no success. For a while, I thought the two, normally rival species, were in love, but it did not last. Eventually, the song of our flightless magpie attracted a mate, which gradually encouraged it to fly and all too soon they left.
I am not sure what happened to the heart-broken Currawong, but we now have a pair of these who live in the tree across the road. I can see their nest from where I sit. One or other of this pair is totally mad – or at least suicidally aggressive. While its chicks were in the nest, it would tolerate no other bird to be within sight. I think this may have inhibited its ability to feed its young. They have been working at it for almost a year and only now have they a grown chick following them around.
Not only would the mad bird not tolerate another bird, it wouldn’t tolerate me. Every time I went into the yard I’d feel a gust on my balding head and a black shadow would brush past, sometimes a wingtip feather in my ear. This was terribly ungrateful as every time I fed the dog, it would be at the bowl almost before the dog. Also we maintained a bird bath and, due to its aggression, this Currawong was the only customer. Anyway, now that one chick is mobile, they decided that our garden is the garden of choice.
While the Currawong has been on patrol, the normally visiting silver eyes (which I mistakenly call ring eyes due to the white ring around their eyes) and wattle birds have been staying away. The result has been an increase in the population of organically fed spiders. Some have grown to considerable size and are incredibly beautiful. One of the species that we host weaves a fake spider into its web so that birds might go for the wrong target. However, more often it is an unwary human who walks through their net.
Now that the mad bird is being chased by its voracious child, some of the other birds have returned. The smaller ones, Superb Fairy Wrens (which I mistakenly call blue wrens due to their blue cap) and silver eyes, travel in large packs and are usually accompanied by other less polygamous species like Eastern Spinebills. The hoard would usually move through our garden once a day and carefully inspect every nook and cranny for any tiny morsel. The spiders must dread their visits.
The trees in our garden often keep the temperature either cooler or warmer than the surrounding land by up to six degrees centigrade. While this makes us much more comfortable, it does have the unfortunate effect of attracting mosquitoes. This is a small price to pay for the fantastic ambiance and entertaining bird life. In any case, apart from being contrary, our youngest child is a mosquito magnet and selflessly saves her parents from hours of scratching.
We are in the peak of summer heat and the trees try mightily to protect us from the worst. I just fed the dog and as I put the bowl down, I noticed the mad Currawong watching me from the tree house. We nodded a wary greeting to each other and agreed that our trees are most precious.
You can find Robert here.