“I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine.” - Psalm 50.11 (NRSV)
“Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” - Matthew 10.29 (NLT)
Back in 2017, Guardian Australia held a competition for Australian Bird of the Year. Basically a glorified online poll, its results were neither statistically rigorous nor its voting method particularly fair. Out of a field of fifty contenders, the final vote went down to the wire between the two birds that would probably also top a poll of Australia’s least liked: the Australian white ibis and the Australian magpie. Between them, these two gathered more votes than third to tenth places combined.
How did this happen? These two intelligent and resourceful birds are also two of the most visible in an Australian urban landscape, where more than six out of seven of us live. But both have serious blights on their reputation: one infamously dangerous, the other ignominiously disgusting.
Was the voting dominated by trolls, who thought it would be funny to get the repulsive bin chicken or terrifying magpie onto the podium? Was this voting for the underbird, a backlash against those who demonise our feathered neighbours? Were more obviously iconic species like the laughing kookaburra, the southern cassowary and the wedge-tail eagle all victims of another Australian tradition: tall poppy syndrome?
Or are more of us simply learning to overcome our avian prejudices? A small number of male magpies do indeed swoop and terrorise anyone coming anywhere near their nest during spring, but magpies also remember faces, allowing them to hold grudges but also to befriend those humans patient enough to respect them and give them a few tasty morsels from time to time. Their vocal range is also amongst the most diverse and flexible in the world, and their morning caroling familiar and widely cherished.
As for the ibis, I personally saw a campaign by wildlife activists seeking to canvas votes for this large wading bird into order to draw attention to the fact that they have only relocated to urban areas in large numbers in recent decades as their natural habitat has declined. For instance, the Macquarie Marshes in northern NSW used to be home to large ibis populations, but with increased irrigation on the upper Darling River, the marshes are more often dry, leading the ibis to migrate to the big smoke, where they have adapted to our waste disposal infrastructure by making use of their long curved beak to raid discarded cuisine. Hence their widespread moniker, ’bin chicken’. But perhaps disgust at their feeding habits is giving way to empathy over their human-caused displacement.
The ibis held the lead until the final 24 hours of the competition, when the magpie surged ahead to win by just a few hundred votes.
Whatever the reasons for the dominance, there’s now a chance to reconsider our national avifauna champions. Guardian Australia is holding another Australian Bird of the Year competition and voting is now open. This time, the contest is happening in two rounds. The top ten picks from the first round are competing in a final round that ends 5pm Thursday.
Included this time in the first round are even more threatened and endangered species, such as carnaby's black-cockatoo, the southern cassowary, the hooded plover, the western ground parrot, the orange-bellied parrot, the night parrot and the regent honeyeater. Some of these are down to the low three digits and critically endangered.
The runaway favourite this year and decisive winner of the first round is a bird that didn’t appear in 2017, yet hundreds of people wrote in to vote for it anyway: the black-throated finch. It’s not a big bird, nor particularly charismatic or intelligent. It doesn’t have the most impressive song or plumage. It is threatened, but others are closer to the edge. It’s not a keystone species, its distribution is somewhat limited and most Australians have never seen one in the wild. How, then, is it already so far ahead of the rest? The answer is found in just two words, typically united into a single hashtag: #StopAdani. The finch’s best remaining habitat will be ravaged if Adani's Carmichael coal mine goes ahead, putting them at increased risk of extinction. The legal fight over the preservation of this little bird has thus become one critical part of the five year battle to prevent Queensland’s Galilee Basin from being opened up to half a dozen major new coal mines, whose combined output would dwarf the domestic emissions of Australia as a whole, and accelerate us further into planetary climate disruption.
Would the publicity from having the black-throated finch named Australian Bird of the Year help the anti-coal campaign for climate justice? Does such explicitly political voting render the competition less fun and whimsical? Do those who vote for the black-throated finch really know anything about it other than the fact that its status has been fought over in court battles seeking to thwart yet another deadly coal mine? Does this actually advance an urgent moral cause or does it perpetuate the instrumentalist notion that we only love those bits of creation that are currently useful to us?
Also on the first-round list was the bird that came fiftieth out of fifty last time: the short-tailed shearwater (a.k.a. muttonbird). In yesteryear, they darkened the skies with their numbers. In recent decades they have remained our most numerous sea-bird. Alarmingly, however, this year’s migration seems to have gone horribly wrong. Short-tailed shearwaters spend the northern summer in Alaska, typically returning to Australia’s southern and eastern coasts to breed in September or October. But the last few years have seen large numbers of muttonbirds dead from starvation in the Arctic, their regular food sources apparently amongst the casualties of especially rapid warming in the far north. Only a small fraction of their regular numbers have arrived back in Australia at the usual time in the last couple of months. So while definite studies aren’t yet available, there’s reason to suspect that the disappearance of so many shearwaters could well be yet another casualty of climate disruption.
According to a recent piece in the Guardian by Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, birds are “liberation that never ends”: the splendour of their plumage, the freedom of their flight, the comfort of their song. But “enjoying their company is also to know an inconsolable sadness”, because so many are disappearing on a planet being made more hostile to life with each passing year. So in this competition our love for birds can’t be sealed off from our grief, dismay, anger and anxiety at their decline from forces that sooner or later threaten all of us who share this planet.
When we read the holy scriptures, we encounter a God who delights in birds, and whose care extends even to the smallest and least significant. The same God loves the smallest and least significant amongst humans too, choosing to bless a nation in slavery with liberation, so often choosing to work through those considered last and least in the world’s eyes, coming amongst us as the son of a peasant girl in the backwaters of empire, who taught us to consider the ravens. God’s love for birds isn’t in competition with God’s promises to us and nor does our love for human neighbours ultimately find itself in competition with our care for our common home. The two are entwined.
So vote for bird of the year. Then recommit ourselves to seeking justice for all our neighbours, human and avian, in the name of the Creator who cares for and works through the humble and overlooked. And may our efforts have the speed of a peregrine falcon, the clarity of a wedge-tailed eagle, the resourcefulness of an ibis and the joy of a warbling magpie.
Author: Dr Byron Smith, Ecological ethicist and Christian minister, podcast at https://thegooddirt.podbean.com/