The Australian review.....Mateship With Birds By AH Chisholm

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Subject: The Australian review.....Mateship With Birds By AH Chisholm
From: colin trainor <>
Date: Sat, 18 May 2013 12:38:39 +0930

Mateship With Birds 
By AH Chisholm

Avian calling in Chisholm's Mateship with Birds
                The Australian
                                                                May 18, 2013
                An undated photograph from Mateship with Birds. The caption 
reads: Happy Australians. Domesticated Cockatoo. 
                Source: Supplied

                                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.
  These days, 
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 
the anthropomorphic.








         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".
 He noted 
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
 human tongue.
 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
 Australian ornithology".
 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)

Robert Adamson
 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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