Sunday, November 1, 2020

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Home Issue 35 A touch of light: cartwheeling galahs

A touch of light: cartwheeling galahs

By MIKE GILLAM

All photos © Mike Gillam 

Ahhh, the sound of baby galahs crying for food, aaarga aaarga aaaarga followed by the rapid swallow and gurgle as a parent obliges and offers up a nutritious beak-full of soft food. The regurgitated offering is not vomit from the stomach but from the crop, a specialised part of the oesophagus.

The name galah is derived from gilaa, a word found in Yuwaalaraay, an Aboriginal language of New South Wales. Galahs pair for life and the death of a partner causes its mate great anguish.

In Centralia the arrival of babies follows nest preparation in a tree hollow, usually a grand old river red gum. Competition for hollows can be fierce; the ongoing loss from fire of major habitat trees preferred by galahs is a travesty.

Like all babies the survival of young galahs depends on attentive parents; a steady supply of food, guidance and protection from life’s many hazards.

The October peak in galah breeding seems to be triggered by the earliest availability of Acacia seed, to some extent weather dependent in both timing and magnitude.

Some pairs also decide to produce young in the early winter, peaking in June and timed to coincide with the arrival of the winter herbs and especially the crop of burrs and prickles such as the prostrate Tribulus of which the notorious three corner jack is best known.

With luck the Tribulus might endure through July and even August if there’s follow-up rain. Whatever the supply, galahs face stiff competition from flocks of hungry red-tailed black cockatoos also descending on this prickle bonanza.

For the hungry and demanding babies there’s a huge hole in the galah food supply when the prickles run out until the Acacia seed crop becomes available in the early summer. August through to early October sees parent birds desperately trying to fill the gap with the new buds of old man saltbush, flowers of Sennas and the subsurface roots of grasses that can be reached with some determined digging.

In pre-European times the galahs very likely relied on yalka, the native bush onion, to fill the late winter gap in their food supply. According to Arrernte women, now in their seventies, this nutritious bulb was once abundant on the floodplains of the town’s watercourses and they remember harvesting them with ease with their mothers and grandmothers, filling up billy cans. The arrival of the invasive couch grass, an escapee from cultivated lawns, overwhelmed native plants in the flood plain and effectively displaced the native onion by the mid 1970s.

Naturally as the bush onion dwindled galahs turned their attention to the invading couch grass and it was only a matter of time before they looked further afield. Emerald green sporting ovals beckoned. All that lovely well watered kikuyu grass, pale roots thicker and sweeter than couch grass and with the soft crunch of celery. And going to waste, to paraphrase those who shake their heads at the great unploughed wilderness and get excited at the thought of progress and prosperity. Who could really blame the galahs for choosing to be a nuisance and survive?

I confess galahs are one of my favourite Centralian birds; their complex language, the cry of their babies among my favourite sounds. Perhaps this choice may be explained by a natural contrariness on my part, a response that’s triggered by a barrage of gripes concerning noisy galahs.

In my experience of enforcing wildlife protection legislation, galahs were one of our most vilified species, second only to crows and without the usual farming defence that’s cited in the agricultural south. There are people who seem hell bent on fighting something but strangely they seem to have a certain blind spot when it comes to their own species. Maybe galahs and crows are the perfect target because they don’t fight back.

 For Centralians who don’t make time to creep around the bush in search of wildlife, the omnipresent flocks of crows and garrulous galahs are infinitely better than the alternative of empty skies. I know there are some among us who find the tracery of aircraft contrails more beautiful than birds but I hope to sway them nonetheless.

There are many other urban birds that appear to be thriving in Alice Springs, magpie larks, bower birds and crested pigeons to name some, but few create that sense of majesty that a flock of galahs does, wheeling in anticipation before a blue-black sky heavy with the promise of rain.

Fewer still with a crazy addiction to power line gymnastics and uncontrollable joy when the storm finally breaks and the bitumen roads release their heat. It may not be in the nature of many urbanised humans to rush outside and collectively bathe in a rainstorm but I do believe that a flock of galahs best expresses how we feel when it does finally rain. We all feel their joy.

 Galahs provide a vivid connection to the wild world, a daily connection that our society desperately needs to hold and re-establish. I do wonder if their sense of outlandish and raucous fun in a large group challenges our ingrained conservatism and need to control everybody and everything around us? Perhaps ‘larger than life’ is a condition we reserve for our species alone, for people not parrots. Can we also blame Hitchcock for adding flock birds to the very long list of our phobias?

Is it the case that we expect other life forms, even those that don’t understand our language to genuflect in our presence, to retreat in fear and awe at our approach? Galahs are long lived and if they’re sensible they do retreat from inquisitive humans, a lesson that’s reinforced by the flock’s collective experience and quickly acquired by the new offspring.

Crows on the other hand see it as their avian duty to prick pomposity, to challenge and needle those who lack respect. Thankfully both galahs and crows have a raucous voice to match their conspicuous bravado; they assert their right to live among us and won’t go quietly.

It seems they will always be a target of bad press and malicious intent. In 2013 “a galah plague” in Boulia featured on the national and international news with reports of some 4,000 galahs causing blackouts and stripping trees in the town… although the report does also clarify that the electrical utility company installed spacers (a simple remedy) to keep the wires from touching when a flock of galahs take off in a hurry. Problem solved but not before it was reported that trees were being lopped and chopped to deny roosting sites to the unwelcome hordes.

More recently in South Australia, a government vet was reported responding to a concerned member of the public, said “the timing of the deaths (at least 100 dead and dying galahs) and the high concentration of the toxin (organophosphate) suggested “deliberate misuse”.

Pink and grey galahs in the early morning light are without equal; they hang like ripening fruit on the bare upper branches of a favourite roosting tree. Yes, they do trim the leaves from branches so they can clearly see the approach of predators etc. Despite all the predictions, none of our trees have suffered greatly over the past 10 years and reports of tree deaths while rare need also to consider pre-existing tree health.

I know they can be noisy but coming from the noisiest species on the planet – in the Northern Territory where fire-works are legal one day a year and are set off illegally for the remainder – protests of noise seem well, exaggerated and uncharitable. I could fill a page with the human-generated sounds that easily exceed in decibels the average galah rave. Galahs move about in flocks and, just like it’s not always easy to make yourself heard or communicate with the kids when everybody else is trying to do the same and you have to shout, they do the same.

The growing galah fan club includes a great many Australian photographers, writers and poets. A local man, I wish I could remember who, made the finest contribution I’ve read, a brief poem about cartwheeling galahs in our local skies. Hopefully the title of this essay will catch his attention.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Interestingly Mike, Galahs appeared only to settle in true Centralia along with Europeans.
    Prior to that, they were west and east of the WA and Queensland borders, but apart from occasional sightings only seemed to come about as far south as Stirling / Barrow Creek. Presumably greater access to permanent surface water from tanks and bores was a factor.

  2. Thank you Mike. From lockdown in Melbourne, your article and brilliant photographs took me to another happier place!

  3. Andrew, You’re absolutely right to make the connection between artificial waters and the expansion in galah populations through the inland.
    We decided to make some cuts from today’s galah story and run a shorter story (part 2) + more photographs next week.
    This from the closing para next week: “While galahs are often killed in farm and crop wars they have also benefited from the massive increase and permanence of artificial water points throughout the inland.”
    While the Horn Scientific Expedition of 1894 failed to collect this species in “Centralia” I believe there are some credible records (eg. Jervois from memory) from the late 1800s and prior to the widespread establishment of pastoral tanks and troughs supplied by groundwater.
    They certainly appeared to be patchily distributed and uncommon prior to the increases in surface water.

  4. They are also clever learners; while some relatively permanent surface water had always been present, many of those locations would have made them vulnerable to predators (dingos), whereas the tanks and bores by their nature were much more exposed and a safer prospect for taking a drink, which dry food eaters like galahs had to do fairly often.

  5. Mike,
    I haven’t looked it up to confirm, but from memory I think the poet may be (cousin) Dave Berman. The collection of verse I recall was “Dead Pegs”.
    He lived in Alice in the 80s and was an ecologist who did research on feral horses.
    He was also a member of local folk group the Bandicoots with Will Dobbie and Rick Southgate.
    He is no longer in town, but I’m not sure where.
    Just checked;
    Here it is;
    Galah

    I was a little pink Galah
    Just sitting on the highway tar.
    Just sitting, eating on the road
    Wheat that spilt from someone’s load.
    Fighting for the finest seed
    Disgusted with my partner’s greed,
    Then flying high to miss the cars
    Which often flatten slow galahs.
    Then landing on the road once more,
    To get the wheat we’d missed before.

    Just then I found a lovely grain
    It made the other wheat look plain
    It was big and rounded but
    It had fallen in a rut.
    My friends were squawking, “There’s a car,
    Get off the road ya mad galah!”
    I didn’t fly I’d just about
    Got that delicious seed dug out.
    My friends were making quite a fuss
    Squawking that “the car’s a bus!”

    I got the seed an’ flew but splat
    And now I’m feeling rather flat,
    A very sore and sorry bird.
    The driver hadn’t even heard
    And here I am stuck on the grill
    Feeling quite a dopey dill,
    But not everyone can poach
    A ride upon a tourist coach
    And as I drive about today
    I see the world a different way.

    Life’s not only piles of grain
    Sprinkled there like golden rain.
    There’s other things along the road,
    A dead wombat and flattened toad,
    And there’s a mangled kangaroo
    A victim of the highway too,
    A blue tongue lizard thought it great
    To lie and thermoregulate
    In the middle of the road
    But he’s squashed there like the toad.

    The wombat with his tiny stride
    Ran but found the road too wide,
    The roo had some grass to munch,
    Saw the lights and hopped then crunch.
    Now eating them are hawks and crows,
    There’s never any dead of those
    And up here on the grill with me
    There’s moths, grasshoppers and a bee,
    A butterfly, a dragon fly,
    The highway caused them all to die.

    So all of you who use the road,
    Drive a car or spill a load,
    Or fly towards bright headlights
    Or hop across the road at nights
    Or lie there baking in the sun
    Or run across the road for fun
    Or eat the grass along the side
    Just think of all of us who’ve died.

    © David McK. Berman 1984

  6. This may not be the one about “cartwheeling” galahs, but I think Berman may have written another about galahs. Will is still in town and may remember, or have a copy of “Dead Pegs”.
    Hmmm, I think I should have a copy somewhere on my shelves.

  7. We love the galahs that come everyday to our property in Ilparpa.We enjoy their noise and chatter and they have a special relationship with the dog, it is such a daily laugh.

  8. @ Mike Gillam: My attempt at a book has the following sentence: Cyperus bulbosus, the so-called bush onions, are in serious decline as a result of the introduction and rapid spread of buffel grass.
    You don’t mention buffel grass – did I get it wrong?

  9. Charlie, many thanks for posting the poem by Dave Berman, a work of true Centralian genius but he’s not the cartwheeling galahs poet I’m searching for.
    His was hardly an epic work such as Berman’s or even a sonnet, more a very short poem, perhaps less than a dozen lines.
    Also less focussed on comic tragedy, more in tune with the essay theme of a touch of light! I think the man lived in the golf course estate. Hoping I can post his poem next week.

  10. You’re quite right Frank. For the sake of accuracy, both grasses played a role in the demise (almost) of Cyperus bulbosus in a great many alluvial floodplains.
    In the Todd River, I feel sure the couch grass did most of the initial damage through the 70s and early 80s before buffel marched into the space to become the dominant pest.

  11. Thanks Mike for your prompt reply. The context of that sentence was: “Wendy recalls that on an occasion when she and some friends visited Wanipi exploration camp, the Yapa women and children dug up a large quantity of janmarda in the grassy enclosure.
    “Cyperus bulbosus the so-called bush onions are in serious decline as a result of the introduction and rapid spread of buffel grass. Just as buffel grass is choking the janmarda, so too is Kardiya society choking Yapa culture.”
    I guess I can leave that as is.
    Good luck with the poem. Something to look forward to.

  12. Thanks Mike. Wonderful story. Stunning pics. Your article and John Williamson’s “Galleries of Pink Galahs” are in perfect, beautiful synergy.

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