In Brisbane it’s spring – not as dramatic a season as it can be further from the equator where the season explodes with life and colour but noticeable nonetheless. At such a time of year the wildlife gets busy. And when you’re talking about Australian wildlife, that can be problematic.
A while back I was living in an old Queenslander with my daughter the Little Chef. A single mum and her teenager where the topic that week was: “Why shouldn’t I get my belly button pierced?” About this time she struck up a friendship with a magpie.
I came home one day and she told me there had been one on the back veranda. She said she gave it some chicken and it had come up very close to her… and then she said it came right into the kitchen and ate up the bits of unpopped corn she’d dropped earlier and the dead Christmas beetle (they can be a plague). I was horrified – ‘how did you get it out again?’ I wanted to know. “I just threw a bit of chicken out the door,” she said.
I hardly believed her, and then the next morning, there was a big magpie (and they are much bigger than they are in England) sitting on my back step. Our little female cat Mowzer was maintaining a discreet distance. Our tomcat Fred was probably with Sister Passionata, the little old nun who lived with her brother in a neat little house across the road.
My dad told me once that his grandad, Old Bax, used to throw meat to a magpie out the back door. “Here Jacky-Jacky,” he’d say, and the bird would come right up and take it out of his hand.
Note: ‘Jacky-Jacky’ is not an acceptable term, as it is an old name for a person of colour. I’m guessing that it originated as a name for any black bird – such as a jackdaw. But the Queensland sugar industry was founded on the slave labour of the Kanakas, kidnapped from the South Sea islands in a practice known as ‘blackbirding’ which continued until the early 1900s. I assume that Jacky-Jacky stems from a similar idea.
The reason, said Big Bax, that his grandfather fed the magpie on meat in particular was to take the aggression out of him. Now, all you English are going to be a little surprised by this but our magpies are not only bigger than your magpies, they are much, much meaner (oh sit down, it’s not a contest). And at this time of year they mark out their turf and anyone who strays into it can be in danger of provoking an attack.
And they attack hard. I have seen good-sized boys lying terrified on the ground as a magpie swoops at him mercilessly. And they do draw blood. I’m not sure what is worse – hearing the beat of its wings behind you or seeing it flying eye-height straight at you with its razor beak.
So my great-grandad had good reason to be throwing steak to the magpie although I had to tell Chef that she had not done a Good Thing. Tempting as it undoubtedly is, don’t be feeding the wildlife kids. And if an aggressive magpie is making your life a misery there are some useful strategies here.
Another wild visitor – not mean, but early – is the kookaburra who wakes me each morning at dawn and chides me to bed too early at sunset. Of course, in Brisbane, sunrise and sunset both come freakishly early – before 5am now for the one and around 6.30pm for the other. The reason for this is that Queensland refuses to go to Daylight Savings, thanks to the powerful farming lobby which believes changing the clocks would confuse the cows over milking time. True.
We don’t just have big birds in our trees, we have possums too. I have seen them several times from my front veranda after dark, when I suppose they look as much like big fat squirrels as anything. Think of a mouse the size of a cat and you get the picture. But they are as cute as their name when you get a good look, with their big eyes and little pointy noses. We have a tin roof and sometimes at night the possums riot across it, terrifying us out of our sleep and out of our wits.
Finally, we have the geckos. These are brown translucent lizards that were unknown in Australia last time I was here. But I knew them well in Hong Kong, where I grew up. Apparently they came here in the meantime on the cargo ships. Geckos are lucky for a household and, when I lived on Lamma Island, I found one sick in the flat once and moved it quickly outside since it would no doubt be unlucky to have one die on the premises.
We have a family of them on the front veranda and they scamper around the walls and ceiling, chasing mosquitos and other bugs, calling to each other with their loud chirrups. This is a sound that makes it feel even more like home.
It’s been a long time since I had a place to give that name to, so I guess I’ll be staying here awhile. Even if it does mean having to share it with so much exotic fauna and flora I half expect to see Sir David Attenborough and a film crew at the bottom of my garden sometimes.
More about magpies –Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection
More on Blackbirding and its place in Queensland history – Blackbird Finding Family Blong Yu Mi
Queensland daylight saving time and cows – by David Marler at Greenshack
Asian house geckos are benign invaders – by Stuart Gary at ABC Science
© Sally Baxter 2014