Birdlife, wild and caged

Mention Australia’s Northern Territory, and people will think of Darwin, its capital city.  Mention Darwin today, and people can only think of Dili, the ravaged Timorese capital just across the narrow Timor sea. In the wake of the mass killings in Dili, Darwin has become the jumpoff point for foreign journalists, peacekeeping forces, and humanitarian workers headed for East Timor.

But in normal times, Darwin is better known as the gateway to the Kakadu National Park, a world heritage destination covering 20,000 square kilometers of floodplains, woodlands, wetlands, savannas, and monsoon forests.  The sheer vastness and ecological variety of this mass of mostly flat land make Kakadu a sanctuary for many species of wildlife not found anywhere else. The birdlife of Kakadu was naturally on my mind when I accepted the Christian Conference of Asia’s invitation to join a meeting on Church and Society issues held in Darwin last week.

But in view of the Timor tragedy, I resolved to use my free time to get an interview with the Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao, newlyreleased from an Indonesian jail and recently given refuge in Darwin. The interview could not be arranged; understandably, he had more pressing things to do.  I was disappointed, but I also felt morally released to do some birdwatching instead.  I joined a day tour to Kakadu.

My first sighting was of a Jabiru, a large stork with a thick black straight bill and a long dark glossy neck with bluish green hues.  It stood out among the smaller immaculate egrets, watching busloads of tourists speed by on the Arnhem highway.

When I was younger, I used to slosh through the swamplands of Laguna with a shotgun.  The sum total of the sportsmanship I learned as a bird hunter was that you must only shoot birds in flight, never on the ground  or as they were perched.  No one told me why we used shotguns instead of rifles, or why we should shoot these birds at all. Wounded and lifeless, the woodcocks and woodhens I brought home always had the feel of a stiff feather-duster.  I do not remember anything beautiful about them.  The meat they yielded was often so meager and tough it was not worth the effort of cleaning them up.

But in their own habitat, majestic and proud, these birds brought forth an experience of inexplicable satisfaction that I had not known from having them for supper.  In flight, the Jabiru showed its marvelous wing span, its extended neck pointing the way to the open sky. Following its path, I actually felt good that the device pressed against my eyes was not the telescopic sight of a gun.

Kakadu is famous for its billabongs, placid lagoons formed out of river inlets like clusters of cul-de-sacs.  Our tour took us to the Yellow Water billabongs on a small boat where we could safely view the crocodiles.  But after you have seen one or two crocs, you could say you have seen them all.  They are uniformly muddy-gray in color; they lie in wait on mudbanks with half-open eyes, their predatory presence lending a touch of danger to the lily-lotuses under whose gigantic leaves they would often lurk.

The birds do not mind them.  Whistling ducks congregate in the shade of low-lying mangroves, endlessly cleaning their feathers.  Darters, with their graceful snake-shaped necks and sharp pointed bills, hang their wings to dry in the afternoon sun.  From a distance they look like totems standing solemnly over sacred ground.  High above, perched on a tree, a solitary sea-eagle surveys the scene, looking out for the most subtle ripple in the water.  Swiftly it descends from its perch and flies over a darter that had caught a fish.  The darter plunges into the water and disappears.  But just then, a crocodile begins to move in its direction, forcing the bird to quickly resurface, fish still in its bill.  Food and life, death and danger, are everywhere in the wild.  Yet, beauty becomes all the more stunning in this setting.

In contrast, the caged specimens of the Jurong birdpark in Singapore exude only the emptiness of an over-protected life.  Having heard so much about this bird sanctuary, I decided on the brief stop-over from Darwin to do some birdwatching rather than shopping.

After Kakadu, Jurong was a most depressing experience.  The tour opened with a live performance of cockatoos and macaws racing against one another on mini-bicycles.  Then followed a routine with a bird swooping towards an outstretched arm in the audience to take a dollar bill.  Then a parrot was made to sing.  I found myself halfwishing the birds would one day bite their trainers and learn to say no. I strayed next into the pavilion for the “birds of darkness” and watched the bright-eyed barn owls who would not sleep.  Through their glass prisons, they stared back at their onlookers, almost defiant.

The situation of the chattering mynahs, cockatoos and parrots, locked up in individual cages, was not any better.  They had their names painted on their cells, with the phrases they had memorized.  But no coaxing from me would make them talk.  They eyed me suspiciously and turned their backs.  I next found myself in the Hawk Walk, where the falcons, eagles, and hawks were kept, manacled to their perches. On their cages were the names of the corporations that sponsored them: “Fuji’s Hawks” read one, in celebration of the company that makes films rather than of the peregrine falcon it had appropriated.

Yet nothing perhaps would compare to the void in the eyes of the parrots and cockatoos that had been let loose in the birdpark’s open spaces.  Jurong has colonized them so effectively they would not fly away.  On the way back to the airport, I realized I saw enough of Singapore in less than a day.


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