The Sad and Lonely Bird: a kind of post-fieldwork fable

8

The many months spent readjusting to whatever life it is, that we return after fieldwork, are often difficult and more than often sometimes sad. This was certainly true of my return to Canberra after eighteen-or-so-months living in the breast of kin in the smallest-scale of home field-sites. The return to Canberra was heavy and sad and oft times lonely. I missed living on Country, I missed my Yolŋu family and I missed my long-time partner (fieldwork having taking its toll on our six or so year relationship)[1]. And sometimes I just missed any company at all. (Canberra is socially desolate at the best of times.)

In the midst of all this missing, however, I did find one familiar friend in the company of particular Sad and Lonely Bird. Upon my return to Canberra I moved into the cluster of suburbs nestled quite close to campus. I lived a nice bicycle riding distance from uni and was soon in the routine of riding to and from each day. Riding home on one of these early, aforementioned heavy days, I heard a bird call out from somewhere nearby – it was singing of the wet season in Camp. My ear cocked to the wind, I stopped my bike immediately.

One learns to note birds attentively on country, as they are always somehow ‘lakarama-mirri’  (‘they have the quality of telling’), whether about a change in season or the growth stage of yam. I recognized the call immediately as one prominent among the chorus of the wet season in camp – particularly prominent (as with the bush-stone curlew and the orange footed scrubfowl) among the chorus at night. What was he doing all the way down here in the cold of office-like Canberra? And where, exactly, was he anyway?

I followed the call on my bike. It was a prominent call, kind of hard to miss. It sounded a little (or a lot), like this:

It was a sad and lonely bird that had somehow found itself a very long way from home. I followed the call to a place very near my own house, where I saw an elderly man covering his eyes from the sun, peering up a tree. He was squinting, shifting weight under foot and shuffling side to side (as one does when doing these things).

Apparently the call of the unusual visitor had been driving the man to spare and many other locals besides. So much so that they had filed a complaint with the council. What type of bird? He couldn’t see the damn thing. Apparently it was as shy as it was want to be heard.

Over the next few months I heard the same solitary bird calling out almost every day, singing of the wet season in Camp. It was only ever the one call, of the one solitary bird that had somehow found itself, a very long way from home.

The poor lonely bird became my friend and company, and I often found myself saying a ‘marrkap-mirri, gumurr-djarrark’ (a familiar expression of endearment and empathetic affection that Yolŋu often say to close kin). Over time, however, the call became less a song of wet season in camp and more a song of finding oneself a very long way from home.

Over the next two years or so there were times (sometimes long stretches of time), when I’d neither hear nor think of the bird – and then (often riding my bicycle home or to and fro), I would hear it call out again. Sometimes it sang of the wet season and other times of having found oneself, a very long way from home.

Skipping forward through this story to a month or so prior to now – I was walking my dog with a friend and heard it call out again. It was the same solitary bird still calling out alone. Dragging my dog by the lead, I followed the call of the Sad and Lonely Bird to a cluster of trees nearby. My friend and I both covered our eyes from the sun, to peer up to the top of the tree. We shifting weight under foot and shuffled side to side (as one does when doing these things), and there it was – the Sad and Lonely Bird.

The Sad and Lonely Bird was perched up high unhappily on a branch near the top one of the trees. If it was sad and lonely, I thought, it was also not in want of company. It was crouching down hunched over, trying to hide unto itself (neck pulled in and wings flattened to its side). Clearly less than impressed to be seen. But seen it was and sighted we did – it was shiny glossy black, almost greenish-blueish black with red eyes (I thought of a chuff, but it couldn’t be), and a long almost pheasant-like tail.

I excused myself from the company of my friend and returned home to spend the rest of the afternoon at my desk, looking through bird-guide books and internet sites trying to match the call to said sighted bird. It was not until the following afternoon that I was able to find a match and give a name to said Sad and Lonely Bird (shiny glossy blue-black, red eye, long tail and as shy as want to be heard).

‘The Koel is a large, long-tailed, cuckoo. The male is glossy bluish-black, with a pale greenish grey bill, the iris crimson, legs grey, as feet are too. They are very vocal during the breeding season (March to August in South Asia), with a range of different calls. The familiar song of the male is a repeated koo-Ooo, koo-Ooo, koo-Ooo.’

It was perhaps, a whole nother week before I finally came to understand, that the Sad and Lonely Bird was not a sad and lonely bird at all.

‘The Koel is a large, long-tailed, cuckoo. The female is brownish on the crown with rufous streaks on the head. Her back, rump and wing coverts are dark brown with white and buff spots, her underparts whitish and striped. They are very vocal during the breeding season (March to August in South Asia), with a range of different calls. The female makes a shrill kik-kik-kik, kik-kik-kik, kik-kik-kik.’

The female so different of appearance, and me ‘dharaŋan-miriw walalaŋ-gu rom’ (‘not recognising or understanding their law, their proper manner of conduct, or habitual way of doing things’), I had simply been ignorant or blind to the fact, that his lady-friend was there all along.

Not only was the Sad and Lonely Bird not a sad and lonely bird, but neither had it somehow found itself, a very long way from home.

‘The Koel is a migratory bird from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. I makes landfall in Australia in September-October for the breeding season every year. There it stays until March or April when it alights for the Northward journey home.’

Shiny glossy blue-black, red eye, long tail and as shy as want to be heard.

~


[1] Any, or all economic aspects of my work I attribute to this friendship and collaboration (Nanni, an unorthodox (heterodox?) Economist).

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Filed under Ethnography, General personal writings

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