Mateship With Birds
By AH Chisholm
Avian calling in Chisholm's Mateship with Birds
May 18, 2013
An undated photograph from Mateship with Birds. The caption
reads: Happy Australians. Domesticated Cockatoo.
WHEN Orpheus arrived in Hades, the first thing
he noticed was an
absence of birds in the trees. To conjure a bleak mood, John Keats
finished one of his poems with the line, "And no birds sing". In
Mateship with Birds, first published 90 years ago, AH Chisholm
speculates about what it would be like to wake up in the Australian bush
without the dawn chorus.
Carrie Tiffany borrowed the title of Chisholm's book for her
novel, which has been shortlisted for this year's Miles Franklin
Literary Award. She was inspired by a first edition found in a
secondhand bookshop. "He refers to birds and animals as female and
male," Tiffany said recently, adding she thought there was something
missing from how we relate to nature at the moment.
most of us consider birds through the template of science. There's much
to be gained from Chisholm's writing, however. He is unashamedly lyrical
and poetic about his engagement with the bush. Tiffany's comments bring
present attitudes in nature writing into focus: science has made us
self-conscious, wary of emotional responses, careful to steer away from
Science is beneficial to the survival of birds; if we allowed
ourselves to become "mates" with birds, however, rather than seeing them
as objects to be collected, as specimens, photographic catches, or more
names in a twitcher's obsessive list, then we might be more inclined to
find empathy with them.
Alexander Hugh (but known as "Chris")
Chisholm was a remarkable man. Born in 1890 in the Victorian goldfield
town of Maryborough, he left school at 12 to work as a delivery boy. He
started writing to spread his passion for birds, initially for the
ornithological journal Emu, then for general newspapers. His first story
of note was a plea to stop the killing of egrets for the fashion
designers of the day, who used their plumes as fascinators.
went on to become editor of several newspapers and the editor-in-chief
of the Australian Encyclopaedia. He was also a sports reporter in
Melbourne and press officer for the governor-general. In 1976 he wrote a
foreword for the Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds.
his lively foreword to this long overdue reissue of Mateship with
Birds, Melbourne author and birdwatcher Sean Dooley suggests it was via
his innumerable articles for newspapers and ornithological journals that
"Chisholm left an indelible mark". Other reviewers have called his
prose ornate or archaic, but I prefer the word stately.
Mateship with Birds, Chisholm became a forerunner to modern nature
writers such as Eric Rolls. It was the bible for birdwatchers before we
became "birders" and it ranks along with that most influential of books
from the 1950s, What Bird is That?
The introduction was written
by poet CJ Dennis of Sentimental Bloke fame, who offers a wry
description of the naturalists of the day: "Many a learned savant shoots
birds with a gun and writes about them as a pedant. Mr Chisholm shoots
them with a camera and writes about them as a human being."
was opposed to egg collecting and clashed with most of the professional
ornithologists of the time over the unnecessary shooting and trapping
of birds for "scientific" specimens. He was known for his tenacious
ability to argue a point until he exhausted his adversary. He was
described as a quarrelsome man; however, his writing became the bridge
between the arcane world of ornithology and the reading public.
with Birds opens with a chapter titled The Gifts of August, in which
the brown flycatcher, the Jacky Winter, sings loud enough to "make the
approach of Persephone perceptible even to the dullard". This winter
bird's song becomes "ecstatic" and strikes a chord in "the breasts of
those gems of the grass, the communistic Red Robins, White-fronted
Bush-Chats, and Yellowtailed Tit-Warblers".
I was delighted to
read the old names for these birds again, and throughout the book we
discover local names for certain birds alongside their Latin
ornithological tags. The common names survive in conversation although
they have been "corrected" by many committees. In his day Chisholm sat
on one such committee, and although it designated the name "thornbill"
for an indigenous family of small insectivorous birds, he continued to
call them tit-warblers in his articles.
One of the most charming
chapters is The Aristocracy of the Crest, which reminds me of Francis
Webb's poem about black cockatoos, "the artists of Heaven, the crested
ones". Chisholm writes about the rarity of the crest, how it lends
dignity and "sprightliness" to the bird. He thinks all crested birds,
young or old, indicate by the manner of their display that they are
indeed "one of Nature's anointed".
Chisholm writes of the
"conscious dignity exhibited by the Cockatoos, and particularly by the
pink (Cockalerina) species, which verily appears to have an assured
knowledge of the fact that it possesses the most beautiful crest of any
bird in Australia". And that those variegated feathers, like the golden
crowns of hoopoes, are "all too fatal in their beauty".
in 1922 that the pink cockatoo was rapidly becoming one of the rarest of
its kind: many thousands were trapped and sold as pets, and others were
killed for their feathers.
Chisholm writes about the song of another bird abundant in his day and now
rare, the crested bellbird:
a boy in Victoria ... following the commonsense boyish practice of
allowing a bird to choose its own name, we knew it as Dick-The-Devil ...
listening again in fancy to the particular, liquid run of notes, it
seems to me that the juvenile ear rendered them as near to human speech
as was possible in the words, "Dick, Dick-Dick, the Devil" - the whole
phrase to be taken leisurely, with, on the last syllable, a liquid drop
as that of a small stone splashing into a pool or a soft "clicking" of a
The final chapter, The Paradise Parrot Tragedy,
refers to John Gilbert, a naturalist and taxidermist, whom Chisholm
describes, interestingly, as a "coadjutor" of John Gould, the "father of
In 1839, while carrying out
ornithological work on the Darling Downs, Gilbert shot a parrot of a
species he had not previously seen. Gould referred Gilbert's specimens
to the genus Psephotus and, delighted with the beauty of the birds, gave
them the specific title of pulcherrimus. The following quote by Gould
acts as a prelude to the extinction of the paradise parrot: "The
graceful form of this Parakeet combined with the extreme brilliancy of
its plumage, renders it one of the most lovely of the Psittacidae yet
discovered; and in whatever light we regard it, whether as a beautiful
ornament to our cabinets or a desirable addition to our aviaries, it is
still an object of no ordinary interest."
Thinking about Gould's
observation, Chisholm writes: "Superlatives having been wrung from a
seasoned scientist, who saw only lifeless specimens of the 'most lovely'
bird, what was to be expected from those persons fortunate enough to
know it in life?"
After Gould's notes there was nothing much
written about the paradise parrot until the 1980s. By that time large
numbers of Gould's "beautiful" parrot had been sent abroad for aviaries;
they were known to bird dealers in Britain and the Continent under the
name of Paradise Paroquet. They gradually died out in captivity, and in
Europe it was not known that these birds from paradise had a habit of
nesting in termite mounds. In fact even in Queensland there was not much
more known about them, other than that they nested in mounds and lived
in pairs, not flocks. In Australia they were known variously as the
ground parrot (as distinct from the green ground parrot), the ground
rosella, beautiful parrot, elegant parrot and the anthill parrot. The
last photographs taken of these birds are reproduced in this book.
discovered the Norwegian author Carl Lumholtz was at the Nogoa River
near Rockhampton in 1881, where he wrote up an experience with a pair of
these delicate birds that deserved to be "revived from the
semi-obscurity of his book". Here's Chisholm's quote from Lumholtz in
full; in retrospect it becomes metaphorical:
An hour before
sunset I left the camp with my gun, and soon caught sight of a pair of
these Parrots that were walking near an ant-hill ... After I shot the
male the female flew up into a neighbouring tree. I did not go at once
to pick up the dead bird - the fine scarlet feathers of the lower part
of its belly, which shone in the rays of the setting sun, could easily
be seen in the distance. Soon after the female came flying down to her
dead mate. With her beak she repeatedly lifted the dead head up from the
ground, and walked to and fro over the body, as though to bring it to
life again; then she flew away, but immediately returned with some fine
straws of grass in her beak, and laid them before the dead bird,
evidently for the purpose of getting him to eat the seed. As this, too,
was in vain, she finally flew into a tree as darkness was coming on. I
approached the tree, and a shot put an end to the faithful animal's
Chisholm placed an article in newspapers throughout
Queensland titled "Is it lost?" Finally, in the southern Burnett River
district, he got to see a pair of paradise parrots. After this, there
were only two more confirmed sightings, the final one in 1927.
with Birds has been out of print for too long and Melbourne publisher
Scribe is to be congratulated for producing this new edition. Chisholm's
work encourages a different way of relating to birds, a way of sharing
their world without destroying it. If you take the time to live with
this classic bird book, it will enrich your life.
Mateship With Birds
By AH Chisholm
Introduction by CJ Dennis with a new foreword by Sean Dooley
Scribe, 200pp, $24.95 (HB)
holds the CAL chair of poetry at the University of Technology, Sydney.
His books of poetry include The Goldfinches of Baghdad, The Golden
Bird and The Kingfisher's Soul.
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