The bird demon

First published

Human beings are frail creatures, One can have the most beautiful, highly refined motives, but as soon as one's bank balance is threatened, all is lost. Back in the 1960s there was a lovely writing assignment to Bundaberg in Queensland. Apart from touring the distillery which makes the famous rum, it was important to tour the sugar cane plantations. Of course, there was an invitation to tea. The owner and his wife were there, the best china was brought out.

"Do you take milk?"

"No thank-you."


"No thank-you, I never touch sugar."

There was a pained terrible silence. It was as if we had gone to a party in Tel Aviv and said: "I always keep a copy of Mein Kampf for bedside reading."

Then there was the occasion we were invited by our friends the Patersons, to visit their sheep property at Wirrinourt in Victoria's Western District. Outside their living room window there was a long bank of sugar gums, lovely wispy gracery things, all standing close together like spectators at a football match. Suddenly... what would you call it? ...a screech of sulphur crested cockatoos came overhead. There must have been two or three thousand of them, the sky was filled with flapping white wings. The sight was magical. They all settled in the sugar gums, cackling at each other, a noisy meeting of the Country Cockatoo Association.

Marie and I looked at each other: "Aren't they wonderful?"

There was a silence, easily the equivalent of the great sugar silence of Bundaberg. Finally John Paterson said: "We don't think so. And I don't think you will find anyone around here who likes them." Then he explained how they could move through a grain crop doing thousands of dollars damage in 20 or 30 minutes.

Yes, it is remarkable how one's sentiments can change. We were the keenest bird lovers in the district. We installed little bird feeding stations in the wattle trees outside the kitchen window. We put in three bird baths, virtually en suite to all neighboring nests, so that wattles, mynahs, blackbirds, sparrows, wagtails, bluebirds, could bath daily.

We loved the New Holland Honeyeaters. They were absolutely the best creatures we had seen since the humming birds of California. The humming bird is one of the world's fastest. It can move at 100 kilometres an hour. Its wings hum at an unbelievable 75 times a second and it is the only bird that can fly backwards. The New Holland Honeyeater can do all these things except fly backwards. It can go up and down vertically, sideways and hover like a helicopter as its needle like beak scours over the flowers for nectar. We put in native fuschias, which have flowers that hang down like little drainpipes. Our honeyeaters have to suspend themselves upside down so that they can put their beaks into the drain pipes. It is an all star circus act that goes on outside our kitchen window 400 times a day.

After the New England Honeyeaters, our favorites would have to be the magpies. There are two evocative sounds, which almost spell out the soul of Australia. The screech of the cicada and the song of the magpie. In some countries they get very peculiar waiting for the sound of the first cuckoo. We are different, we wait for the first evening when we hear that extraordinary screech, almost burglar alarm noise, of the male cicada. Allegedly it is the male that makes all the noise, it is his formal announcement to the females that he is looking for sex. The noise comes only in the hot weather, usually on a perfect still evening. It is then that we know summer has arrived.

The other evocative noise, of course, is that of the magpie. When we are far from Australia that is the sound we miss. One time when working in Los Angeles we had a bout of desperate homesickness so we thought we would cure it with an Australian movie. So we went to see "The Getting of Wisdom". It was not Judy Davis, it was not the Australian accents, it was not even the sight of vintage shearing sheds that reduced us to tears, it was the sound of the magpies.

The magpie really sings, he gives little arias, little bits of song to which he expects a reply. Unlike the cicada he starts very early in the morning. We have an extended family of magpies which live right at our place. They know that they own us and we know that we own them. I have been assaulted by magpies countless times, particularly when riding bicycles. One time when pedalling near Alexandra I heard this ominous flapping from behind. Of course it was spring, and of course it was a mother protecting her young. She dived down, picked a red beret off my head and dropped it 50 metres down the road.

Up near Milawa, close to Brown Brothers vineyard, I have yo ward off the magpies with my bicycle pump.

That never happens at our place. The magpies know us, and accept we have a right to be here. However they have their pitch. There is an entirely different group of magpies that live in the box trees over the road. They are like the Capulets and the Montagues. If the Capulets, from over the road fly in here, then there's war. Sometimes they fight at ground level, sometimes there is a real Battle of Britain fought overhead, but the Capulets are told very smartly to get out.

There is an old boss Montague Magpie. He is huge. Every night at 5 pm right through the winter we see him strutting down row three of the vineyard. He stops here and there to poke his beak into the soil. He is imperious. He knows this is his place.

The starlings and the blackbirds, not the willy wagtails, not the gorgeous little wrens with the fire eyes or the showy rosellas cause the damage. The kookaburras are no trouble at all. According to the Aboriginals they were put here to awaken the earth, then put it to bed again at night. So there is this tremendous kookaburra clatter at dawn, and as the summer progresses we get it earlier and earlier, even at 4.30 am. Old Man Montague is not too keen on the kookaburras. Irritably he tells them to do their laughing somewhere else.

No, it is not the Australian natives that cause the trouble. We found very early in 1990, it was all the imports that stole our grapes, the blackbirds, the starlings. However in the season of 1991 we were determined to win the war, and we tried everything. We had a warning, by letter, from the Department of Conservation that it was illegal for us to shoot birds. If we shot a native bird we were liable for a fine of $500. The Department suggested that we should instal gas guns. The guns operate by a slow build up of gas and every 20 minutes or so they give off an explosion. On the some of the larger vineyards the noise is akin to a battle in Bosnia. I have heard of vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley of California where the rows are over four miles long. They have to consider whether it is economically viable to turn their tractors around in a single day. People like that can get away with gas guns. Their neighbours cannot hear. If you have only a few acres then you have to appease the folk next-door with cases of wine all through the summer.

Actually you can shoot at the birds, perfectly legally, by using shotgun cartridges which are supposed to frighten the hell out of them, but not kill. John Brown Sr at Milawa has a small vineyard of his own, right beside his house. A small vineyard up there is eight acres. We were having a peaceful breakfast with him one morning. Suddenly he left his porridge, fetched his gun and started firing across the vineyard. He said the cartridges were called 'Frite'. They worked on a three second fuse. The cartridge did not explode until it was over the centre of the vineyard. The shots cost a dollar a time.

Like all these things it is a question of limited returns. Birds are much more intelligent than we realise. For the first week Frite sends the birds off to eat at, say, Reg's vineyard down the road. Reg gives them a few blasts then they come back to John's vineyard, and smartly they begin to realise Frite is not so Friteful after all.

On the Peninsula we tried scarecrows. Some people even constructed scarecrows to resemble the most awesome of our politicians like Paul Keating or Wilson Tuckey. The birds out our way are contemptuous of scarecrows, even a Bronwyn Bishop would not scare them away. The next step was to instal fake hawks or eagles. The instructions were to put a wire between two tall trees with the hawk in the middle, so when the wind blew it would appear to hover. Setting up the wire Was about as easy as putting a telephone line across the Blue Mountains. The birds were not even faintly disturbed. They found the wire a most convenient perch and they laughed at the hawk.

There were suggestions that the birds would be frightened if we hung strips of sparkling foil amongst the vines. A firm in West Australia went one better. It invented a mini windmill. On the arms of the windmill there were mirrors and when they revolved it looked like one of the sparkling globes they used to decorate American speakeasys in the 1930s. This looked a marvellous idea. I sent for three and erected them at the ends of the rows. By golly, I think they did work for three days.

Reg Egan, who has a lovely vineyard at Wantirna South used to fire rockets. He would set up his rocket in an old Veuve Clicquot bottle and fire. I think the birds enjoyed this immensely and so did Reg.

Birds are particularly voracious in the early morning and late evening. Some vigneron ladies run out at this hour and bang saucepan lids together. An occasional scream: "GET OUT OF IT YOU DIRTY LITTLE BUGGERS" also helps. But there is a limit as to how long one can keep doing this. I believe in Indonesia the children are forced to do constant bird watch duty to protect the rice crops. We did contemplate similar vigilance patrols for our grandchildren, but children work on a different time scale in the 1990s. What with videos and all the best television programs being on after 9.30 pm it is almost impossible to get them out of bed at bird time.

Leon Massoni, always a brave pioneer in vineyard works, heard of a marvellous new system now operating in the United States. He telephoned the inventor, Lucian Dressell, in St Louis, Missouri, and asked for help. Would it be possible to have it for the coming bird season which was imminent? The inventor said not only could he have it immediately by air mail but he would come personally and help Leon instal it.

Within a week he was at Main Ridge plus equipment. It was ingenious, the birds were scared away by electric shock. The power came from one, or two, solar panels installed right in the vineyard. No other source of power was necessary. Now all around the vineyard especially close to the perimeter he placed perches, fibreglass rods with a metal strip underneath. These he attached to the trellis wires, sixteen paces between each perch.

He explained that birds always worked on the same system. They were very wary. A pilot bird, a sort of advance party, would fly in first to check out the scene. He would look for a nice spot to alight so he could have a look around before he attacked the grapes. He would see the comfortable looking perch which had been nicely cleared amongst the leaves. "Ah yes, that's the spot."

Thereupon this bird would receive a charge of 2000 volts. The wattage would be almost zero, so it would not kill. But it would give him the mother of all frights and he would fly off at top speed to warn the others not to go near the Massoni's vineyard.

Lucian had been working on this for five years. Over the past year his little electric chairs had been installed in vineyards in 16 States in the US, also in New Zealand. He claimed total victory. One of his triumphs was the big vineyard of Robert Mondavi in the Napa Valley, California.

He installed his electric chairs at a vineyard on an island in the middle of Lake Erie. These people, he said, had appalling trouble. Three sets of migratory birds used the island as their resting place. Always they left the vineyard without a grape. The electric bird fence solved their problems.

The cost, he claimed, for installing the equipment on a four acre vineyard was $1511 US. It would cost nearly double that for netting. Best of all, an amateur could instal the equipment almost on his own in a day.

For the first month the system was ninety per cent successfy Lucian flew out to Australia again. He installed some extra fibreglass perches around the vineyard perimeter. What he did not realise was the ingenious skills of Momingion Peninsula birds. They sit in the trees all day working on ideas to defeat dumb grape growers. Almost certainly we have ten times the quantity of birds than they have in the Napa or Sonoma Valleys of California. In the last week of April, when the grapes were conspicuously luscious, Leon lost 30 per cent of his crop. The ingenious system might have worked but for the little silver eyes. Perhaps they could not be bothered with those nicely arranged perches. They were like American airmen in Iraq. They went straight for the target.

What could we do about these birds? The situation was so desperate I wrote some moving articles in Melbourne's Age. I suggested that the vignerons in Burgundy or Bordeaux never had these troubles. Who ever heard of wine producers in Italy worrying with bird nets or trotting out electric perches with solar panels. Nobody. In these countries one does not see many birds. They eat them. Go to any fine restaurant and it is inevitable that birds will be on the menu. Little birds served en brochette are a speciality.

I went to Marie's library of cook books. She looked up the bible, Andre Simon's Guide to Good Food and Wines, his Encyclopedia of Gastronomy. He pointed out there was not a bird we could not eat. Admittedly some of those ocean travelling sea birds were a bit tough. He did not recommend eating albatross. This was true, the Ancient Mariner, as portrayed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, did not find it a good deal.

But how about blackbirds? He says there was a time when they were considered fit fare for a king. They were served to the Lords of the Star Chamber in 1590 when they cost two shillings a dozen. They were so popular by 1635 the price around London was four shillings and sixpence a dozen. Mrs Beeton in 1861 provided this recipe: "Have ready some blackbirds, rump steak with veal forcemeat, hard boiled eggs, good stock, paste, salt and pepper.

Pick and draw the birds, and stuff them with veal forcemeat. Line the bottom and sides of a pie-dish with rather thin slices of steak; put in the birds, cut in halves; season them with salt and pepper and intersperse sections or slices of hard-boiled eggs, half fill the dish with good stock, cover with paste and bake in a moderately hot oven from one and a quarter to one and three quarter hours, according to size. Add more stock before serving. Allow one blackbird to every two persons."

He gives recipes for almost every bird in the air; sparrows, starlings "fresh shot are excellent." There is even a recipe for roast swan, would you believe? It begins, "Mince finely three pounds of rump steak with three shallots, and season liberally with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg. Truss the bird like a goose, stuffing it with the rump steak etc."

Pigeons, plovers, doves, larks, muttonbirds, are all there. Quite fascinating is the information on peacocks. He says in 1470 the Archbishop of York set before his guests 100 peacocks. It was a wonderful sight when the birds were brought into the banqueting chamber. It was customary at the time for the peacock course to be heralded and brought into the hall with a procession of dishes headed by a stuffed peacock in full feather, its tail sweeping over the bearer's shoulders and its head filled with soaked wool which was set ablaze.

I suggested that all our top cooking writers should be engaged to produce bird recipes, particularly silver eye en brochette, starling broth and black bird pie. We could have a society, the Ghoul League of Birds which, would devise methods for reducing the bird population. We could publish books. For example, there could be a title What Dead Bird Is That?, Not unnaturally this aroused some vast correspondence. It was not as outrageous, as sacrilegious, as creating a society against football, but almost. Bird people are as vocal as female liberationists. There were plenty who were prepared to stand up for Bird Rights. They insisted that the birds were part of nature, they had every right to eat the grapes and I should be happy to provide them.

However others were sympathetic. One gentleman from West Australia said the answer lay in sun flowers. If we planted sun flowers between all the rows then the birds would go for the sun flower seed in preference to the grapes.

A correspondent from Balranald said the answer was to put out bowls of fermenting gruel. This would make the birds drunk, and presumably their hangover would be so awful they would not return. Actually I have found that hangovers have never been a deterrent to man or beast.

A farmer up near the Gold Coast said he had invented an electrical perch. This made our Missouri inventor sound like an amateur. He erected platforms around his vineyard. He put seed on the platforms and a plate. There was a positive connection to one side and a negative to the other. When the bird landed on the platform it sizzled with a full charge. Dead immediately. He did suggest however if I didn't have the stomach for that kind of thing I could lower the charge so that it only half killed the bird.

A farmer from New South Wales gave me the most frightening suggestion and I was not brave enough to publish this in the newspaper. He said that back in World War 2 he had been in ordnance with the AIF. He knew a lot about explosives. He designed a little bomb which he turned into a bait. Crows, ravens, big birds would fly down and pick up his bomb. It had a delayed action fuse and it would explode in mid air. This, he said, gave a most convincing lesson to other birds in the area.

The correspondence kept coming and coming. There were ecologists too who warned us against lethal sprays. One beseeched us to plant a clove of garlic between every vine. This sounded exactly like the method that the novelist, Bram Stoker, used to ward off the blood sucking vampire Count Dracula. Perhaps if we did this, coupled with a crucifix draped on every vine, all would be well. The evocative smell of garlic would ward off nasty insects but I did wonder how it would check the fungal diseases.

Nor would garlic or even crucifixes stop the birds. Ultimately we spent nearly $1000 on high quality nets. The nets were wide enough to cover two rows. Then we connected up each section with vine ties, so ultimately the vineyard was covered with one enormous tent. It was like making a massive crochet quilt, sufficient to drive any sensible human out of his mind. Nets are not only terrible to put on, but terrible to take off again. Like fishing lines at the end of a pier they are designed to tangle with anything in sight.

But just putting on the nets was not sufficient. We found they had to be pinned down everywhere so that not even the tiniest aperture was available for a bird to enter. We did not believe this at first. Dammit, say we left a few holes the size of a cricket ball, they would not matter. Any wise black bird or silver eye would be too frightened of getting its wings tangled.

Not on your life. The birds went after these holes with extraordinary skill, it was as if they had radar detectors. Very soon we discovered that we had not only the district's largest plastic quilt, we had the Peninsula's finest aviary. Once the birds found their way in, they could not get out again.

Actually there was no need to, this was lovely, they had dinner for ever and ever. It was then that we introduced our secret weapon. We have, a toy poodle named Lotte. Now Lotte is tiny, pure black, doe not like to get out of bed until ten in the morning, loves comfort, particularly sitting on pillows or warm laps. She has a vocabulary of at least 3000 words and is more intelligent than most humans.

We pushed her in under the net as an experiment. We knew from that moment this dog had a split personality. No longer was she the sweet, please-pat-me, little lap dog. Now she was the savage hunter. She moved through the vines at such speed we were filled with admiration, it was like Clark Kent turned into Super Poodle. She cleaned out the vineyard in 20 minutes. She had more kills in one day than Douglas Bader or the Red Baron.

There was just one problem, we could not get her out of the vineyard, she wanted to stay there, doing her job until the sun went down. Even when we got her back inside, we had only to say one word, "Birds" and she would start to shiver. Clark Kent again was becoming Super Poodle.

Lotte's fame spread. Other vignerons called to borrow her for bird duty. Lotte worked so hard at one stage we feared she might have a heart attack. But it was Lotte who saved the 1991 vintage. I think we should have put her image on the bottle. There was one disappointment with the nets. No longer could old Montague Magpie take his evening 5 pm stroll up and down row three. He just sat in the bottom branch of the stringybark over yonder and looked glum.

Ah, but not all was lost for Lotte. She managed to develop another interest, an entirely new obsession, chooks. We love our chooks, they are one of the great pleasures of country living. Soon after we moved to Poplar Bend, Marie bought three beautiful white leghorns, which she called the Three Graces. They passed on and she bought a new team which she named after her four granddaughters, Hannah, Isabel, Zoe and Eliza. The eggs they laid were marvellous with rich, deep orange yolks. Nothing can compare with the wonder of a freshly laid egg. We took a childish pleasure in collecting them. Often we would go to the fowl house three or four times a day to see whether Isabel, Hannah or maybe Zoe had done her duty. It was marvellous to pick them up while they were still warm. Sometimes on cake making day when there was an egg shortage Marie would stand over the chooks: "Come on girls, faster, we need more". Inevitably they would oblige.

Just after the 1993 vintage strange and mysterious things happened with eggs. It was a mystery so deep it called for the talents of a Hercule Poirot, or rather a Miss Marples, to understand its intricacies.

The Miss Marples in this case was my wife. But to set the scene. There was a moral problem in our area which had all the ramifications of the Mabo decision.

Should chooks have land rights? Should they be confined to narrow uncomfortable quarters or be allowed to roam free? We were in sympathy with the chooks, we thought they should free range but, by heavens, it had its agonies. They liked to scratch for grubs and insects, particularly around our favourite plants. They had claws with all the power of a back hoe, sending earth behind them in great clouds. In the space of three hours they could expose the roots of all our azaleas and practically unearth Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. All our roses were royal, nothing Republican.

Then there was the problem of the eggs. If we let the chooks Out too early they would lay them all over the garden. They liked to get into the fishbone ferns or move into the dark labyrinth at the back of the climbing roses and, if they moved in there, the chances of finding the eggs were slim. So we adopted a policy of not letting the chooks out until after noon. It was an environmental compromise which even a West Australian premier would approve. They were allowed out for half the day.

The half day compromise suited all the chooks, except Isabel, the big black one. Isabel insisted on her chook rights. She refused to lay in the pen, and held up all egg production until she was released. She laid in the ferns or wherever she chose. Our Lotte, the small black poodle, loathed chooks and Isabel in particular. She had been trained to scare starlings from grapevines and she saw little difference between starlings and chooks. She knew she was not allowed to kill Isabel, but she went close. When we were not looking she made dashes to scare her into a near heart attack.

Oh, but when Marie picked up Isabel, that was too much. Lotte was besieged with jealousy, she put on a scene akin to Joan Sutherland in the mad scene from Lucia. Two weeks later there were some strange manifestations. I was stepping out the front door and I very nearly trod on a large brown egg. It was placed so perfectly, right in the middle of the mat, a miracle it was not squashed.

What an extraordinary place for Isabel to lay an egg. "It just shows you," I said, "how proud Isabel is of her egg laying skills. She wants to demonstrate exactly what she can do."

The same thing happened on Monday and again on Tuesday. Oddly enough on Wednesday the egg was in a different place. I had a little office in the garden. The egg was on the mat there. "Isn't that nice?" I thought. "Isabel is doing me the honor this time."

On Thursday the egg was neatly placed on the grass exactly where Marie went daily to collect her fresh herbs. "I think this is very strange," said Marie Marples. "Not once have I seen Isabel on the job doing her egg laying."

"Oh, she's very quick," replied Hercule Keith. "She wants to please you and she gets it over very smartly because she needs to lay." It was late on Friday when we found the egg once again in the centre of the front door mat.

"That's funny," I said, "I beat that mat half an hour ago."

"And I put the chooks away at four o'clock",

"What does that mean?"

"It means," said Miss Marples in triumph," it is not Isabel who is mysteriously placing these eggs. There is only one person left who could do that and it's "Lotte."

"How could Lotte do it?" asked the perplexed Hercule.

"She is so insanely jealous of Isabel, she watches her all the time she is out of her pen, observes where she lays her egg. Then as soon as it is done, she picks it up, and brings it to the house, to get the kudos. She is pretending to be a chook."

"I don't believe it, she would crush the egg in her mouth," said the utterly defeated Belgian.

"All right, tomorrow we will watch."

At noon Isabel whizzed out of her pen and she couldn't wait to lay her egg. She did it in the ferns just by our bedroom window, and made her usual triumphant crow.

We were in hiding, observing from the bedroom. Not two minutes went by before Lotte appeared. She nosed in amongst the ferns, picked up the egg then trotted off. At first we didn't know where she was going. But she put it down very carefully on the grass just near the backdoor and wagged her tail. "There," said Miss Maples, in that smug manner detectives have when they have solved the perfect crime. "Do you believe me now?"

"I do indeed." Actually I should never have doubted. It is well known that poodles, and particularly toy poddles, are psychologically strange and Lotte was no exception.

Follow onto the next chapter, It is essential to have clean feet

The eighth chapter of Keith's book on his relationship with wine, beer and drinking, 'My life with the Demon'.

Keywords in this article

WineWinemakingViticultreJohn C BrownReg EganLeon MassoniLucian DressellAndre SimonMrs BeetonMarie Dunstan

View all keywords