A touch of light: How quickly hundreds become tens of thousands



All photos © Mike Gillam.

“There’s too many of them.”

Now if only we could apply this refrain to the human species. I for one grew up with the mantra of zero population growth and took it seriously. How many galahs is too many?

After many years sharing our gardens with galahs I do know that 300 can seem like 3000. That’s not to say that thousands of birds won’t visit our town in times of hardship and drought but a little exaggeration is often in the mix.

The Centralian Advocate dated April 14, 1961 declares: “Mr Leo Corbet, of Alice Springs, appealed through the newspaper for donations of seed to help feed the many birds which had invaded the sanctuary because of drought conditions in the Centre.

“The birds are attracted by pools of water provided in the sanctuary, and they have been photographed there in their hundreds.”

How quickly hundreds become tens of thousands.

Again, referring to the 1960s drought: “Tens of thousands of parrots and finches descended on Pitchi-Richi Estate just outside Alice Springs” according to a newspaper report published in the Sydney Evening paper (January 19, 1983).

The site was established as a bird sanctuary by Leo Corbet in 1953. His appeal for donations of bird seed to feed the avian refugees was published in four city newspapers in 1961 and was rewarded with several tonnes of seed arriving in Alice Springs.

Predictably, seed spilled from a number of broken containers leading to a plague of European house mice in the town’s post office and a great many frustrated Europeans but Corbet had broad shoulders.

This highly principled and determined character registered a mining lease in 1957 to prevent the desecration of Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap) by government contractors blasting and taking gravel from the area and on appeal successfully defended his legal authority in court.

After Leo’s death, the sanctuary, by now a sculpture garden and tourism icon was ably managed by his wife and energetic co-conspirator Elsa for many years before custodianship passed to Heritage Alice Springs.

Some conjecture persists about the distribution and number of galahs in Centralia prior to European settlement.

The 1894 Horn Scientific and Exploring Expedition to Central Australia failed to record what would seem to many of us, a common and widespread species: “The Galah was not among 78 (bird) species collected and a further 22 identified, but the naturalist George Keartland was shown a cage containing young budgerigars and a single rose-breasted cockatoo near the Alice Springs Telegraph Station (North 1896).

“He was advised that such birds ‘not otherwise seen’ might be obtained in summer, when they came to water.”

There’s an additional record from May 1878 of four birds eaten by a surveying party at Jervois Range, north-east of Alice Springs.

The advice given to Keartland was sound. The expedition party of scientists traversed 3000 km using camels for transport and were therefore more likely to see wildlife than their descendants hurtling along in air conditioned 4X4s. However, the timing of the Horn Expedition from May to August was clearly intended to avoid the arduous summer and this may have a bearing on the survey parties results.

Did rainfall also shape the records of the expedition?

Galahs love water almost as much as zebra finches and magpie larks. The Horn expedition certainly visited permanent waters that are likely to support resident galah flocks.

But 1894 was an exceedingly wet year following two below average rainfall years in 1892-3. We might reasonably expect that wildlife populations were quite low the year before the Horn Expedition and that some species had widely dispersed by the time of their arrival.

Highly mobile flock birds normally focussed on relatively few permanent waters characteristically disperse across the inland as ephemeral claypans and river pools fill.

We can’t say for sure whether galahs were naturally rare at this time or the Horn Expedition were unlucky in missing out on seeing them altogether.

During the average year of 1914 “S. A. White (1914) saw them ‘in great numbers’ in the foothills of the MacDonnell Ranges (c. 24o S) with flocks of up to several hundreds.”

There is certainly no dispute that galahs have increased in number with the widespread establishment of numerous artificial water points installed by a burgeoning pastoral industry.

On balance I think it’s fair to say that galahs are also benefitting from our urban largesse.

There are doubtless more of them nowadays and the Corbets of Pitchi Richi would be delighted. On this occasion it gives me great pleasure admitting that humans are not responsible for reducing or exterminating yet another species.

My association with galahs spans several decades but reached a more intimate level in 2005 when we closed the Silver Bullet Café.

The number of birds on our site had increased greatly over the years, among them a flock of crested pigeons that were our unpaid clean up crew. Every afternoon they would fastidiously pick up every last cake crumb in the outside seating areas and they became quite dependent on this food supply.

After five years of operation the café shut and the hungry crested pigeons arrived at the windows of our house and demanded food. One would actually peck on the window pane if we were slow to respond.

It seemed reasonable after all those years of dedicated service and I purchased the appropriate bird seed and the pigeons were content. Birds watch other birds intently and small flocks of a dozen or so galahs would come by occasionally and join in although they regarded the tiny ‘canary’ grains a bit small and fussy.

This arrangement continued until 2013 when the Goodman Fielder Bakery suddenly closed in a nearby industrial precinct.

For many years I’d noticed the galah flocks that visited the bakery in Elder Street and naturally assumed that some-one was feeding them old bread returned from the supermarkets.

My assumption was correct and a week after the bakery’s closure a flock of about 150 ravenous galahs arrived on our site, shouldering the pigeons out of the way and voicing their distress.

I began buying 5 kg bags of parrot mix and the relationship has continued to this day.

I have breakfast with galahs every morning and I believe my intervention saves the Alice Springs Town Council a great deal of stress over the maintenance of their highly manicured estates of turf.

After a year or two admiring the galahs in our garden, their playfulness, joy, deep affection for one another, their love of rain, water, food and on occasion, partying, I’ve become invested in their daily struggle, their fear of slingshots, predatory raptors and almost anything that moves suddenly.

The more time I spent in their company the more photographic potential was revealed. I decided to approach people who were feeding galahs and ask if I could assess their environs as potential locations to take photographs. Several months later and following numerous glasses of wine with some wonderful and generous senior citizens I returned to my own garden and realised it would have to do.

The galahs appreciate our Acacia filled gardens and we do seem to attract invalids, refugees and escapees including a long billed corella with a metal ring around his ankle that hints at a previous life chained to a post.

There’s a galah that comes on occasion, the ultimate survivor, that has no feet! The left leg ends in a narrow stump, a bit like a pirate’s wooden peg leg and the right may, just may, have a tiny portion of heel remaining.

I can’t get close enough to see its eye colour, to know if it’s male or female but this amazing bird walks a little drunkenly with some assistance from its outstretched wings that kiss the ground as it walks. Another hops around contentedly on a single leg.

One-eyed galahs are more common and there’s an unusual galah corella hybrid with a slightly maniacal laugh.

For pure exhibitionism galahs take the prize. Forms of play include sliding down bent light poles with wings outstretched for balance, or sliding down a corrugated iron roof slick with ice, lying on their backs juggling rocks or sticks and various forms of chasey.

Improvised play and tool making are regarded as indicators of intelligence and in the world of birds, our cockatoos are remarkable.

Standing in the street outside the post office where spilled grain once created a scandalous mouse plague, I compare galah photos with an old Arrernte friend of mine.

He shows me the image of a striking white winged galah, a repatriated pet, on his phone and laughs with approval when I tell him it comes to our place with a wild flock once or twice a week.

I take photographs of galahs every week when the light is right and the Acacia seed and prickles are scarce. I’ve taken thousands of images in a decade long struggle to capture their shimmer, radiance and essence.

I only wish it was possible to illuminate these qualities of character, beauty and form in a great many other life forms, those less abundant, less endearing, less intelligent but no less worthy.

While galahs are often killed in farm and crop wars they have also benefitted from the massive increase and permanence of artificial water points throughout the inland.

I have a nagging concern that perhaps the wheat I feed to Centralian galahs might be sourced from South Australian farmers that shoot galahs to protect their crops.

It seems I’m deeply and emotionally invested in a bird that’s a hardy survivor. On a positive note, I won’t have to suffer the lifelong heartache of watching populations slide to their doom in the way of my friends in eastern or southern Australia; those who adore small woodland birds or swift and orange bellied parrots facing precarious futures. Those emotionally scarred by the holocaust of bushfires and the howl of dying koalas.

Throughout this nation our leaders are blind to the bir’yun or shimmer of the Yolngu, the elevated understanding of natural totems embraced by anthropologists Howard Morphy and Deborah Bird Rose.

As a part time galah advocate I feel wholly inadequate sharing this page with Deborah Bird Rose who idolised and defended bats no less. Extinction cascades are expanding and accelerating because our population at large is mostly passive; looking the other way as pirates loot and pillage, accepting appeasement, empty promises and trinkets from vote buying politicians.

Some among us look at the morning sun striking the mountainside and are reassured that nothing has changed. Unfortunately, none of Centralia’s inhabitants are as privileged as people and resilient as rocks.

Profit paradigms aside, I wonder if the struggle for planet earth also highlights a simple divide in the emotional values of people, those less or more disconnected from the natural world?

Is this a divide between those who see beauty and truth in the animate world as opposed to the inanimate? Is it even possible to convince someone who worships a highly appointed and preened show car that the mental health or indeed, the very survival of their children is connected in any way to a tree, a galah or a bat?

Do such people more easily succumb to the frequently exaggerated claims of easy money by extractive industries over the abstract values and complex mysteries of the natural environment?

It’s a challenge but I certainly believe these two temples of the human spirit are not cast in stone. Polar opposites clearly exist but the shifting middle ground can be reached. The chief responsibility surely lies with the communicator not the audience.

My incoming emails are full of pleas for support from ordinary people fighting extraordinary battles, challenging the negligence and inertia of their own governments.

Putting their own time, money and bodies on the line to save sacred caves or heritage buildings, koalas or greater gliders in fire ravaged forests, no longer so temperate or certain in a changing climate.

It is said when enough people act, leaders follow. Leo and Elsa Corbet were often out of step with the population at large in Alice Springs; they took the jibes and never wavered.


Recently in this series:

A touch of light: cartwheeling galahs

A touch of light: fracking advice from an artesian diving beetle



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