What kind of bird would you be and why? This is one of a long list of “What kind of” questions sometimes asked by counsellors to help survivors reflect and move on from a childhood of abuse or neglect. What kind of toy, vehicle, flower, tree, bird or dog would you like to be? At first this sounds like a delightful task. How easy. What fun! Well, it might be if your name isn’t Jane.
I’ve pondered this question for years, unable to settle on one bird species, partly due to my obsessive need to produce the most perfect, scientifically-based response. Each bird has its pros and cons. The freedom to soar like an eagle is appealing but tearing apart prey is too violent and gory for my tastes. But if I’m not a predatory bird I could end up being the prey, unless I’m something the size of an emu and they have very little road sense as I found out when one saw me, changed direction and collided with my windscreen. I also have an aversion to bloated, maggot-infested carcasses so carrion-eaters don’t receive my vote either. Perhaps a cockatoo? A seagull?
The intention of this therapeutic task is, of course, not to agonise over a perfect response but to pick at least one appealing feature of a species. I was unexpectedly led to my final answer after a chilly evening spent huddled on the beachfront next to the tallest man I have ever met while watching a parade of the smallest species of penguin in the world.
So, I would be Eudyptula minor, the little penguin? No, not quite, but I currently share many of their physical and behavioural characteristics. It was while searching for a quote for this blog post that I discovered what kind of bird I do want to be. Before my revelation, let’s rewind to that November evening last year when I made my first visit to Phillip Island, 90km from Melbourne.
In the last six months I’ve made visits to three islands leaving me with vastly different experiences. I spent several days trudging solo along the deserted shores of Bribie Island National Park and I was dragged through mosquito infested muddy mangrove swamps on Coochiemudlo Island by my adventurous son. My trip to Phillip Island, the breeding ground for a colony of around 32 000 little penguins, was genteel in comparison but just as memorable.
Greg, the author of Hiking Fiasco blog was kind enough to drive me and take part in this special penguin encounter. I enjoy solo walking for many reasons, but having a friend or family member available to share unique experiences can multiply the pleasure. Greg has lived in the Melbourne area for most of his life, so I had the added bonus of an interesting historical commentary about his own experiences and the changes that have occurred on Phillip Island.
The surprises began on the drive there when a couple of extremely odd birds caught our attention. “Wow! These could be really rare birds! I must get a picture of them!” I screamed inwardly. Since almost deafening my daughter when I first glimpsed snow a few years ago, I’ve learnt some restraint. Bursting a companion’s eardrums is never appreciated. Instead, I calmly commented to Greg on how strange they were. Or maybe I wasn’t as calm as I thought… Greg slammed on the brakes and we skidded to a halt after a crazy 180 degree spin.
No, not really. I was actually in very safe hands with this experienced chauffeur although given his past career it wouldn’t have been completely out of character. We came to a smooth stop and I got my rare bird shots from the open car window. Yes, I was far too chicken to actually get out in case they attacked me. After rounding the next bend we spied a large group of them grazing! Were they some kind of imported domestic geese species bred for meat? Maybe they were the resurrected dodo. There were even fuzzy grey babies preening themselves. Unfortunately, in my excitement I failed to notice the little macro symbol in the corner of my display screen; hence, the lack of sharpness.
It turns out they are actually Cape Barren Geese, Cereopsis novaehollandiae, native to Australia and one of the rarest species of geese in the world. There were fears in the 1950s that they would become extinct, however, breeding programs and the eradication of predators such as foxes and cats have increased their numbers. Cape Barren Geese are able to survive on outlying islands due to their ability to drink salty/brackish water. We found out another trait of this species, well, at least the ones on Phillip Island. They have terrible road sense. I’m not sure how they avoid becoming road kill when they spend so much time walking in front of moving cars.
Eventually we made it to the clifftop boardwalks at the Nobbies Centre in Summerland where we were able to view Nobbies Rocks and also Seal Rocks (in the far distance) which are home to a large colony of fur seals. This is also where the explosive blowhole may be viewed.
This is all my zoom could manage to pick out of the fur seal colony.
Over half a million visitors watch the penguin parade each year which was easy to believe when we saw the crowds along the boardwalk. While there, I saw my first little penguin sheltering in an artificial nesting box near the boardwalk.
The clifftops were carpeted in colourful flowers which were much more dazzling in real life than my washed out photos.
Grabbing a cup of coffee from the café, we escaped the noisy crowds and found a quiet beach to wait until the penguin tour began at 7pm.
It was there we saw the common torch or red hot poker lily, Kniphofia uvaria . Unfortunately, this vibrant flower is an introduced weed from South Africa and is becoming a problem in parts of Victoria.
Finally it was time to head back to Summerland Beach and to our guided ranger tour of the penguin parade at sunset. A variety of experiences are offered by Phillip Island Nature Parks with all profits spent on conservation, research and education. I must admit I had never been on a guided tour in my life and have tended to avoid them as I don’t enjoy crowds. On this occasion though, an old school friend had recommended the small guided ranger tour groups and I’m glad she persuaded me. Our guide, ranger Chris, had probably done this hundreds of times, but his enthusiasm and relaxed conversational style made it seem unscripted and personal.
Our group only consisted of about a dozen adults and we were given personal headphones, binoculars and a fold up chair to take to our own section of shorefront away from the large crowds who had taken up the less expensive general viewing platform option. Later that evening, Chris also took us to an underground viewing room.
With an average adult height of 33cm and weighing around 1kg, little penguins are the smallest of the penguin species. They are also the only penguin species with blue-white feathers. Like many other water creatures, they are counter-shaded for camouflage – darker on the top to blend in with the sea from above, and lighter on their underside to blend in from the bottom. Although the island is home to a colony of around 32 000 penguins, there are only around 2000 breeding and non-breeding penguins in the parade area. Here are a couple more older chicks. Little penguins will often lay two eggs.
Breeding females ditch their mate at the end of breeding season and the divorce rate can be up to 50% for future breeding, unlike other species which may mate for life. The breeding couple share incubation and feeding of the young but don’t feed each other. The males are slightly heavier and have a bigger beak and more defined hook.
Phillip Island Nature Parks has a strict no photography rule once the penguins begin to arrive after sunset. Little penguins wait until dark to return to their burrows to avoid being eaten by predators such as pacific gulls and as we witnessed on the night, they are easily spooked by signs of danger. Flash photography and torches may delay or stop their return to their burrows to feed young. People have been coming to watch the penguins since the 1920s so they are used to some noise though. The beach and boardwalk lights were gradually introduced over a number of years and the lights work on the red spectrum which doesn’t affect their eyes.
We settled down on the foreshore during the last of the sun’s rays and waited for the first event of the parade – the landing of thousands of little penguins after a day of feeding at sea.
Armed with binoculars we scanned the darkening waters and eventually spotted the first raft of penguins arriving. The next stage was frustrating to watch. A hungry pacific gull was in the area and after leaving the waves and assembling themselves into a close group on the sand, the nervous penguin group panicked on numerous occasions and returned to the safety of the waves. All it took was one penguin to panic and turn back and they would all follow. This reminded me of the frustrating experience of watching a newborn lamb or calf try to stand and search for its mother’s teats. Almost, almost…nearly there…and they plonk down to have to start the whole process again.
In between these panicked charges through the waves, the decision about who would lead the group took up time. It seems that unlike some species, penguins are reluctant leaders. I suppose being the head of the line places you in a vulnerable position. They seemed to be arguing, “You be leader. No, you be. No, you.” I can’t say I blame them. I prefer to let others go ahead on my walks as they clear spiderwebs from the path and scare away the snakes and feral pigs. It also means I’m not feeling the pressure of someone pushing me along from behind when I want to go at my own pace.
Here’s a postcard for you of a few little penguins arriving at sunset since I can’t share pictures of the event.
Eventually the first raft of penguins made their way in single file up the beach and along their habitual paths. By this time another few rafts had arrived along the beach and the whole process was repeated.
It seems that little penguins are creatures of habit and guided by instinct. As they waddled in a line up the beach, instead of detouring around a single rock jutting out of a large expanse of sand, they would take the harder route of going straight over the top of it. This puzzled me for some time and I wondered if they are just not very smart. Then I thought about my own habits in relation to driving routes and parking. Despite being told about a faster route to a destination, I will tend to take the more familiar one which is often based on landmarks along the way such as buildings or parks rather than risk getting lost. I also try to park in the same area of a shopping centre each time in case my memory fails. Penguins use landmarks to help them return to their burrows. Perhaps the small rock that they struggled over was one such directional landmark. Or maybe they just blindly follow the leader who on this occasion wasn’t very clever.
Chris told us that years ago the Summerland Peninsula was a housing estate and the penguins would still try to make their way to their burrows through the area each night with some nesting underneath buildings. Some residents would find themselves having to open their doors and gates to let the penguins pass through when they wouldn’t deviate from their usual routes. Beginning in 1985, a buy back and complete removal of the housing estate occurred due to concern about the effects on colony numbers. Phillip Island rangers also recently renovated some areas to give safer access to burrows, however, the penguins still keep to their usual routes. Perhaps like me, they are also just stubborn.
We left the shorefront to continue watching the penguins waddle along their routine paths back to their burrows or nesting boxes. That night we were given an extra treat and taken to the underground viewing room which gave us an eye level view of the penguins’ ungainly walk. The creatures were able to see us watching through the glass which made us wonder if they were just as amused or puzzled by this equally strange human parade each night.
They appeared to have different personalities and their speed was also influenced by how much they’d gorged on. Little penguins need to consume at least 25% of their body weight each day to maintain condition. During breeding season and before moulting they need more. Now this is where they differ from me. I would like to eat 25% of my body weight each day but sadly, a much smaller intake does more than just maintain my weight.
It was obvious that some penguins had eaten far more than others, with a few roly-poly specimens barely able to put one webbed foot in front of the other. I know how they feel. Others were leaner and quite fast. Some were just intent on getting back to their burrows as quickly as possible while the more curious ones detoured to inspect our faces through the glass or had altercations with each other.
Here’s a video which illustrates their behaviour far better than my words.
While they are excellent swimmers and divers, on land little penguins are awkward creatures, waddling and shuffling along and being tumbled about by waves upon landing. Short legs, big feet, a belly bulging with food, an upright stance and ridiculously short wings make them an amusing and pathetically endearing sight. With so many thousands attracted to the penguin parade each year I wonder if it’s an opportunity for me to make some money from my own short legs, big feet, unco-ordinated, far from graceful movements and bottom-heavy physique?
After a few hours of penguin adoration it was time to drag ourselves away and head back to the mainland. After both stumbling over a speed bump in the dark and nearly crashing to the ground we found the car, checked underneath for adorable suicidal penguins and zoomed off towards the city lights.
As in my Melbourne Part 1 trip, I must thank Greg for his time, good company and for battling many hours of Melbourne traffic to leave me with some wonderful memories of my first trip to Victoria. Thanks also for chivalrously lending me your enormous gloves so my fingers wouldn’t drop off. We don’t get those chilly ocean breezes up north in Brisbane. I was ill-prepared.
If you’ve battled through this wordy post to find out the mystery of what kind of bird I want to be, you deserve an award, or perhaps you need to consider whether you are a masochist! Here’s the answer.
While searching for an inspiring bird quote I came across Maya Angelou’s autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I read some time ago. Suddenly I was transported back to an event when I was a child and the answer to the question became obvious.
I remember squeezing into a public phone box with my mother and younger twin brothers as she dialled a government social services number (now called Centrelink). After years of periodic episodes of violence and poverty due to her husband’s alcoholism, she had reached desperation point.
My mother came from a poor family and a religion and culture which emphasised a woman’s submission. She was not encouraged to further her education even though she was an intelligent person and she didn’t possess a driving licence. Her husband didn’t permit a home telephone (no mobile phones back then.) She was shy and felt intimidated by officials because her serious mental illness made her in fear of them taking her children away. She had no money of her own or qualifications and transport and cared for a son with life threatening congenital health problems. Her husband would probably pursue her if she left.
As I walked to the phone box with my mother, I remember my heart soaring at the possibility of a door opening to freedom and a new life – an escape from fear. There was an expectation of relief and a tingling of excitement too. It was what I’d been waiting for my mother to do for years. There was a determination in her stride and in her face that day that I’d never seen and my love and pride in her swelled. She’d been through so much – we all had – and she still had the strength to fight her fears and ask for help.
The official told her bluntly that she would have to wait six weeks after leaving her husband to receive financial support. There were no refuges in our area and she had no friends to help her as we’d become isolated over the years by her mental illness and my father’s drinking. Her previous experience with religion led her to believe that if she approached a church, she’d be encouraged to remain with her husband as he was the head of the household. There was also a sense of shame or failure in admitting marriage problems and I have no doubt she blamed herself. That phone call was the last time she sought help. To her there seemed no option left but to remain in our situation.
The cage door had opened a crack but was slammed shut just as quickly. My mother was to remain with my father until after I grew up and left home.
So, what bird do I want to be? Any bird at all as long as I don’t have to live in a cage, and this includes a cage imposed by a government, a culture, a partner or my own mind. Surely freedom is an important feature of any bird’s life.
But a caged bird stands on a grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.
An excerpt from the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou