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.
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.
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.
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?