Monday musings on Australian literature: Birds in Australian fiction

This week in Australia, 18 to 24 October, is National Bird Week. According to BirdLife Australia, this week originated in the early 1900s when 28 October was designated by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union as the first Bird Day. Now Bird Week, it is organised and promoted by BirdLife Australia, which is the Union’s successor. Its goal is to inspire Australians to take action and get involved in bird conservation efforts.

My post may not count as taking action, but I thought it might be fun to talk about birds in Australian fiction. It’s a huge topic, so I will only touch the tip of a bird’s feather, but that just means there’s plenty of opportunity for you all to join in, with your Aussie and non-Aussie examples.

Birds, birds, birds

Birds can offer powerful imagery for writers, though like all imagery they need to be used carefully. Marion Halligan’s warning in The fog garden, “That is the trouble with metaphor, it may take you to places you don’t want to go”, is worth heeding. Birds are popular in poetry and fiction. They are used to convey positive or negative ideas or emotions; they convey freedom; they herald messages and omens (good or bad). Just for a start.

And then there are individual birds, which can enrich or complicate the issue further. Doves suggest peace, and crows (or ravens) death. Eagles can mean power and owls wisdom, while lovebirds need no explanation. Flocks of birds can mean many things. Writers can use birds to convey the obvious ideas, or they can use them ironically to convey the opposite.

Patrick White, Happy Valley

Indigenous cultures, like Australia’s First Nations people, can have a specific relationship with birds. They figure frequently in Indigenous spirituality, often providing a connection with ancestors. If your totem is a bird, the meaning can be even more potent.

All this is very general, I know, but the point is that when a writer mentions a bird, particularly if the references recur in a work, chances are there’s a reason. It can be fun – and worthwhile – to think about what that might be. In my posts on many of the novels I’ve selected for this post, I have tried to explain the birds, but who knows whether that has matched the authors’ intentions? For some reason, though, I never even mentioned the bird that opens Patrick White’s Happy Valley (1939) (my review)!

Selected Aussie novels featuring birds

My selection here is ad hoc and mostly drawn from books I’ve reviewed on this blog. My discussion will be brief because my aim is to suggest some ideas rather than write a treatise on the topic. Apologies if you hoped for more!

Some novelists focus on specific birds. Jessica Anderson’s One of the wattlebirds (1994) (my review) features various birds, but particularly the titular wattlebird. It’s not a bird commonly found in literature, I must say, and it’s not one of our most beautiful songbirds, either. However, Anderson uses it very specifically in the novel, for her insecure protagonist, Cec who calls it the DOIK, for its sound, or “no-comment bird”, because it seems to be drowned out by other birds. This reflected, I felt, Cec’s feeling of inconsequence.

Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)

Carrie Tiffany mentions various Australian birds in her Mateship with birds (2012) (my review). The novel takes place over a year that is paced by the life-cycle of a kookaburra family, but it actually opens with descriptions of magpie attacks on humans, and then of cockatoos damaging crops. In the recent Stella 10 years panel, Tiffany reiterated that her novel is about desire, and certainly that’s there, but I also felt her birds convey broader themes about the nature of our relationships with animals, and how we accommodate the animal versus the human within ourselves.

Birds are also significant in Evie Wyld’s All the birds, singing (2013) (my review). Their use is complex. They can reflect protagonist Jake’s mood (“the birds sing and everything feels brand new”), break tension, and suggest death (such as the crows hovering over the dead ewe in the opening paragraph). There are specific birds – butcher birds, night jars, galahs, merlins, currawongs and crows – and there are birds in general.

Tiffany’s and Wyld’s novels are rural, so nature is part of their literal setting, but in both, birds also carry significant metaphorical weight.

Leah Swann’s Sheerwater (2020) (my review) makes frequent reference to the migration of shearwaters (or, mutton birds). They start the novel and introduce the days around which the novel is structured. Among other things, I sensed that their impressive endurance mirrors that of women, like protagonist Ava, and their arduous journey that of her sons.

Book cover

Less obvious, perhaps, are birds in Carol Leferre’s Murmurations (2020) (my review) but murmuration does refer to the flocking behaviour of starlings to deter predators and keep warm. Lefevre’s epigraph, from a paper about starlings, provides a strong sense of her intention: “The change in the behavioural state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is“.

I have books on my TBR that reference birds in their title, but I have no idea what role birds will play. Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird cafe includes an epigraph from Nabokov’s Pale fire: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the windowpane”. Waxwings are beautiful, silky birds, but I’m prepared for something tricksy, or that’s not as it seems. Then bluebird? Bluebirds of happiness? Another is Melinda Bobis’ most recent book, The kindness of birds (Lisa’s review). The back cover blurb starts with:

An oriole sings to a dying father. A bleeding-heart dove saves the day. A crow wakes a woman’s resolve. Owls help a boy endure isolation. Cockatoos attend the laying of the dead. Always there are birds in these linked stories that pay homage to kindness…

Will these birds mean what we might expect? Watch this space.

Birds feature frequently in First Nations Australia novels. Often they are message carriers. For Tony Birch’s protagonist Odette in The white girl (2019) (my review) “a morning doesn’t pass without one of them speaking to me”. However, as in other literature, their use is also more complex. Crows feature heavily in Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (2018) (my review), from the beginning when one says to protagonist Kerry:

Yugam baugal jang! Buiyala galli! Yugam yan moogle Goorie Brisbanyu? You could help, instead of sitting up there like a mug lair from the city.

Lucashenko’s crows are cheeky, complicated beings which know and often convey the wrongness of things. Kerry’s first conversation in her hometown Durrongo is with three crows, one of whom has managed to get its beak caught in the fangs of a dead snake. It could starve to death. “The eaters and the eaten of Durrongo, having it out at the crossroads” thinks Kerry – and so the novel really starts!

Finally, various birds appear in Nardi Simpson’s Song of crocodile (2020) (my review), but most significantly in spirit songman Jakybird, who wants to reconnect the “threads of broken lore”. Towards the end of the novel he prepares his spirit “choir” for one last, powerful song. 

Birds, birds, birds … what can you add to this discussion?

40 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Birds in Australian fiction

  1. I’ve just finished reading The Yield, in which a brolga is meant to represent a missing, dead sister. I should be able to think of others, Patrick White’s Cockatoos for instance, but my (childhood) favourite is Koonawarra, the black swan.

    • Thanks Bill. I don’t know Koonawarra at all, but of course Patrick white’s Cockatoos.

      I didn’t check The yield but remembered they were there. The brolga though is a great reference. Birds also feature in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and, I presume, The swan book, given its title and what I know of her writing.

      • You’d think I’d know about that book given Koonwarra (no extra a) was my childhood home and is where my parents still live. The place name sign has a huge black swan on it. Had no idea there was a childrens book … looked it up online and the going price is $180!!!

        • Oh how funny Kimbofo.

          But, some of those second hand prices you see on line are unbelievable. I sometimes wonder if these books are that “precious”, and whether they ever sell.

    • On Carmel, it’s the Text Classic I have too. Let’s hope someone else has an older version, though I’m guessing we’ll be lucky given the book’s history? How do you know about the epigraph? Is it mentioned in Marr?

    • Peter Craven quotes it in his Introduction, but Text seems to have decided to leave it out. For a writer, the epigraph is a key part of the whole. So it’s odd that it isn’t there.

      • I wondered if he did. I would have read the introduction at the time. As you probably know I do look at epigraphs and often comment on them. I love thinking about them because as you say they can provide clues to the work. Very strange they left it out.

  2. Nothing literary, nothing at all. I discovered birds in my late 40s, when we were living in the house that Chic built on Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury; I could scarcely believe the flocks of rainbow and scaly-breasted lorikeets, the magpies that walked into our kitchen and hopped up on the bench, the galahs and the kookaburras .. all the well-known Aussie birds that brought and still bring joy and amazement .. butcher birds, wopple birds (yesyes, I know !), magpie larks .. Birds are simply wonderful, glorious ! – and I’ve just this minute remembered a book about one: Penguin Bloom. 😀 Not a literary bird, but the kind I really like,

    • Penguin bloom is a perfectly acceptable contribution from commenters M-R -as you allowed to let your minds wander – as is sharing encounters with birds. I can imagine the birdlife on Dangar.

  3. Not much to offer, I’m afraid. There’s The Flight of Birds, by Joshua Lobb (a lovely book, shortlisted for the readings Prize);
    When Blackbirds Sing, by Martin Boyd, and one from one of my favourite authors: The Price of two Sparrows, by Christy Collins.

  4. Great post, Sue. (I was once the editor of a weekly newspaper about birds, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

    How about Richard Flanagan’s Sea of Waking Dreams which features a secondary storyline of the hunt for the rare orange-bellied parrot?

  5. Hi Sue, Rain Birds by Harriet Mcknight is a lovely but sad novel. The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott. And, one you have reviewed, Black Cockatoo by Carl Merrison, Hakea Hustler; a young children’s book. Though my first thought was he Thornbirds by Collen McCullough, but I couldn’t think why other than the title. I then goodled: the book’s title refers to the mythical “thornbird” that searches for thorn trees from the day it is hatched. When it finds the perfect thorn tree, it impales itself on a thorn and sings the most beautiful song ever heard as it dies.

    • Oh good ones Meg, including Black cockatoo, as another Indigenous story. I don’t know your first one.

      I’d completely forgotten Thornbirds. Thanks for doing the research on the meaning!

  6. What a great post and I believe it is a kind of action, writing about writing about birds and drawing attention to conservation, in these times. I can think of a couple of quick examples from Canadian literature, like Frank Bodsworth’s The Last of the Curlews and Candace Savage’s books about crows and ravens. And one of my favourite classics, Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese, which illustrates your point about how there are no accidental birds in fiction.

    • Thanks Buried. I was just thinking last night that I hadn’t had many non-Australian responses on this one. I knew you’d have some, so thanks for sharing them. Love that you agree ie “no accidental birds in fiction” but you now have me intrigued, of course, about Ostenso’s!

  7. Two that I thought were really interesting were The Swan Book by Alexis Wright, where the protagonist Oblivia has a deep connection with birds, and The Lucky Galah by Tracey Sorensen which was a delightful historical fiction novel told from the perspective of a galah. Australia has such stunning birdlife, it really is no surprise they have inspired so many authors

  8. The southern American novelist Harry Crews wrote The Hawk is Dying: apparently more than one was dying, for there was a dead one in the ten pages or so I read in the used bookstore. Tennessee Williams (who was southern until he could get away) wrote the play “The Bright Bird of Youth”; Mary McCarthy wrote The Birds of America. Neither Williams’s nor McCarthy’s work is particularly ornithological, that I know of.

    The eponymous hero of Norwood by Charles James Portis (the one who wrote True Grit) travels on a bus with a chicken from North Carolina to (I think) Arkansas. He or one of his companions hypnotizes a hostess’s chickens, making them believe that they are stuck to a line he has scratched in the dirt.

    Flannery O’Connor had more interest in birds than most authors do: her first fame, when she was a child, came from having a chicken that could walk backwards. In her maturity she raised peafowl. They turn up quite a bit in her letters (The Habit of Being) but not, as far as I recall, in her fiction.

    In poetry, Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Raven”, Marianne Moore has a couple of poems at least involving birds, and the last few lines of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” has both quail and pigeons. John Hay, previously Lincoln’s secretary, later Secretary of State, wrote “Do the Crows Still Fly Over Washington?”; not a great poem, but perhaps better verse than written by anyone else who rose to a cabinet post, J.Q. Adams excepted. (The crows do still fly over Washington–the West Nile virus devastated them, but they are back.) And Randall Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” ends with words addressed to a vulture.

    • Well, George, you have come up with more “chooks” for us. You’ve come up with an excellent variety of birds.

      I know several of the authors you mention. I didn’t know about the crows flying over Washington but I lived 50 miles east, and maybe that was when they didnt? Does Hay invoke the usual symbolism attached to crows?

      • There is no particular symbolism in Hay’s poem, which is find is named “Crows at Washington”. The first two stanzas end “The crows fly over Washington.” The title I gave comes from a letter of Henry Adams’s to Hay, predicting (I think–at this point I shouldn’t be so sure) the soporific effect of Adams’s history of the US 1801-1817. You can see if you wish at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10518.

        West Nile Virus got to the US in 1999, and within a few years had devastated the crow population, at least here. Only recently have we started to see crows again, and not nearly as many. But in the 1990s, as many as half a million crows were said to nest in a stand of trees at Rockville Pike and Randolph road, a few miles north of Washington. the number sounded improbable, but the sight of the stream of crows returning at desk made it seem less so. But soon the crows had disappeared, and then the trees were removed for development.

  9. I’m afraid I’m too tired to do more than catch up on two weeks worth of missed posts.
    So I will simply add Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (Arctic terns and their mass extinction) and The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott.
    And I love that Anderson has a book about wattlebirds. We have regular wattlebird visitors to our grevillea in the mountains. I love their yellow bellies and red wattles.

    • Fair enough Brona … understand completely. Migrations is a good one. The rain heron is too, but others have beaten you to it, which just does to show that it’s a good’un too for the topic.

      We have red wattlebirds in our garden here. I love them, except for the month before daylight savings when they tend to wake us up too early with their not wonderfully pretty song (if you can call it a song!!)

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