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.