Gentle Creatures: Brisbane’s bush stone curlews in the shadow of extinction

Dean Biron

16 May 2022

As green spaces hemmed in by concrete and glass go, the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane lacks the grandeur of New York’s Central Park or Sydney’s Hyde Park. Yet it is no less welcome a refuge from the thrum and jostle of an ever-expanding city. Once you pass a hundred or so metres from the entrance gates on Alice Street, the persistent discord of traffic fades and only the tips of the adjacent skyscrapers remain visible. All of a sudden, amid palm trees and Banyan figs that have been anchoring themselves to the earth since the time of Ned Kelly, there is room to think and comparatively fresh air to breathe.

Here the enervating heat of Queensland’s progressively longer summers is somewhat mitigated. Gone is the scramble of vehicles and pedestrians negotiating the electronically orchestrated intersections; gone too are the ubiquitous street hawkers and the thudding muzak of the clothing stores. There is even a sense of escape at last from the thousands of CCTV cameras that track movement through the city proper.

That isn’t to say that in the gardens you are not being watched. True enough, the tourists rambling among the flower beds and the students and office workers dotted about on the grass for the most part keep to themselves. But oftentimes there can be found one or more pairs of eyes furtively appraising your every move.

Those eyes belong to the bush stone curlew, a species of bird that resides in a number of Brisbane’s inner-city parklands. Also known as the bush thick-knee, southern stone curlew or weeloo, the curlew is one of those winged creatures that have forsaken the skies for a less extravagant life alongside those of us down on the ground. As many as twenty inhabit the gardens at any one time, dotted about in pairs or gathered in communes of half a dozen or more.

The thing one initially notices about the bush stone curlew is those radiant eyes—obsidian spheres centred in a corona of soft yellow. That is, if you see the bird in the first place. Curlews are well adapted to their favoured settings of wide grassy areas or semi-cleared scrubland. They nest among leaf litter, sticks and bark, their grey-brown streaked plumage blending in with the background so as to make them difficult to spot. Their unusual—if not always successful—defence is to freeze on the ground, often in curious aspects, hoping that a combination of immobility and camouflage will flummox potential predators.

When on the move curlews exhibit a gangly elegance. At the crepuscular hour they throw off their daytime torpor—one ornithological text accuses the bird of ‘loafing during the day’—and begin to jitter about in search of food. If a prospective mate arrives on the scene it engages in a sort of demented fandango. It is at these times that curlews begin to make their presence known to all. Though the name is onomatopoeic, language cannot adequately represent the night call of this eccentric breed. (It is sometimes uttered in the day, especially if rain is approaching.) On occasion the sound is solitary; other times a chorus will burst out in a collective lament so forlorn that First Nations mythology has long associated it with impending death.

Inquisitive, peaceable, harmful to no one, today the call of the curlew is a cry of mourning for the bird itself. It is one of hundreds of species quietly diminishing in twenty-first-century Australia. Once common throughout the country, the bush stone curlew is now listed as endangered in both New South Wales and Victoria. The remaining populations are in the main clustered around the coastal zones of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In these places numbers are said to remain steady. Given humanity’s present course, however, it is only a matter of time before the curlew is obliterated by the environmental free-for-all in which we are engaged.

Susan Sontag once wrote of the ill-fated German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin that he felt he was living in a time when ‘everything valuable was the last of its kind’. The final crisis for Benjamin—played out under the lowering skies of France on the cusp of the Second World War—was how long, ensnared between Nazi forces approaching from the north and east and Francoist Spain blocking escape to the south, it would ‘continue to be physically possible to breathe European air’. Time indeed proved to be short: in September 1940 he suicided at the border between France and Spain.

Were he alive today, Benjamin would be no less convinced that much that is worthwhile in the world is tentative—potentially the last of its kind. As with so many other animals, time is running down for the bush stone curlew: the walls of hyper-modernity are closing in upon it as inexorably as eighty years ago the walls of tyranny were besieging many of Europe’s inhabitants.

Only now we are all tyrants, running roughshod over every other living thing around us.

What can be said about the glum reality of anthropogenic ecological devastation that already hasn’t been voiced thousands of times over? What of worth can a neophyte and non-scientist possibly add to the clamour of protest? There seems little option other than to reiterate a few specifics even the most thoroughgoing sceptic would be hard-pressed to dispute. That in two hundred years the earth has gone from harbouring a few hundred million people to almost eight billion. That in the interim it went from having zero cars, trucks, buses and planes to many tens of millions. That we have managed to simultaneously raze over half of the world’s rainforests. That by means of a generalised and remorseless habitat exploitation we have otherwise hugely diminished the space in which nonhuman species can continue to survive.

The remaining locations around central Brisbane where the bush stone curlew is found eking out an existence—parks; golf courses; industrial estates; grass traffic islands, with cars and trucks barging past in a bedlam of smoke and noise—signify exactly that: a tightening of space. They serve as a dwindling number of prisons where these birds are, for now, safely confined. What little literature there is lists fox predation as the major cause of the curlew’s decline, likely one reason they gravitate to metropolitan locations. However, the curlew’s real predators are the executives and bureaucrats who occupy those office blocks pressing up against the boundaries of the Botanic Gardens.

It is one of the closest buildings to those gardens—located within shouting distance of some of the curlew’s favourite haunts—that contains the bird’s greatest adversaries. That place is Parliament House, where politicians of all stripes work to usher through the mining leases and land-clearing permits and development proposals that help enable the greatest unfolding disaster of the era. Over the past several decades, as Australia’s population of threatened birds has fallen by more than 50 per cent, these harbingers of doom—in concert with their brethren across the country and the rest of the developed world—have hollered and harangued the planet to the precipice of destruction.

In Queensland, those valiant few striving to preserve the environment have been subjected to the most spiteful vitriol. Hansard records parliamentarians referring to environmentalists as ‘eco-terrorists and gutless green germs’, ‘greenie doomsday soothsayers’, ‘pesky stinking greenies’, ‘mouldy hippies with Greenpeace t-shirts and cockroach-infested hair’ and (most breathlessly) ‘unproductive, wealthy, inner-city, elite green activists with their anti-investment, anti-jobs, anti-mining, anti-agriculture agenda’. It reports one member referring to the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires as ‘the direct result of radical greenies getting their hands on planning policy’, another pronouncing the theory around the greenhouse effect as ‘scare tactics’ propagated by ‘headline hunters in the media as well as academics in search of fame’. As late as 2012 it shows a member smugly asserting that nature and its resources are at the service of society, to be used for the benefit of society collectively and as individual persons: to believe otherwise, he concludes, is to ‘worship a false idol called the environment’.

Over the years this besuited mob has legislated for ‘green tape’ reduction in order to fast-track mining operations. They have raged against efforts to protect natural wonders like the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, with one premier declaring ‘war’ on the World Heritage List. And still now, in the face of a United Nations warning that there is barely time to avert ecological calamity and a group of 11,000 scientists affirming an urgent climate emergency, they have colluded to endorse a gigantic new thermal coal mine and associated infrastructure—one of the largest fossil-fuel projects Australia has seen.

All of this ideological posturing helps verify white Australia’s wretched failure to forge a reasonable connection with the land on which it lives. At the same time, it exposes a remarkable ability to fool ourselves into believing that our erstwhile sovereignty over nature will endure no matter what. We are convinced we possess the imagination and wherewithal to rescue the planet before it is too late, though there is minimal evidence to suggest we are capable of acting on behalf of the curlews or the koalas or the myriad other flora and fauna whose survival urgently depends on modification of our behaviour. The political class, disabled by power, can think no further than the next election. The mainstream media, aroused by chaos and discord, has thrived on casting doubt upon scientific consensus. And a complacent and distracted public has, we are told, no desire to bathe in gloom or be lectured on environmental issues.

Well, though I teach a university subject on environmental justice, this is not intended as a lecture. To begin, I am as guilty as anyone. I talk a good talk even as I consign another pile of garbage wrapped in plastic to landfill, even as my car adds another day trip’s worth of emissions to the global problem. And I take endless photographs of bush stone curlews that are of dubious value insofar as their ongoing survival is concerned, linking me to a dark tradition of co-opting animal life for anthropogenic purposes.

Only lately do I look through the lens and see not just a group of birds but a jury of my peers, convicting me with their gentle natures and their puzzled stares. Meanwhile, my students talk about the requirement for genuine international cooperation and an ecocentric perspective that gives voice to the planet’s nonhuman inhabitants. They argue for the importance of effective nonviolent protest in the face of corporate greed and political apathy; they agree that Indigenous knowledge is crucial to developing future environmental policy. In short, these young people constitute the hope that is the only possible antidote to the desolation their elders have wrought.

It is upon them that the bush stone curlew, along with numerous other threatened species, will have to rely, because prior generations have not lived up to that responsibility—not by a long shot. Australian settler society has presided over a two-hundred-year rape of the land upon which it was founded, leaving those who follow to try to atone for that collective crime. They will need to be selfless where in the past we have been mostly self-indulgent; they will need to be compassionate and contemplative where before we were too often brash and belligerent.

In this much can be learned from the bush stone curlew, which has sat placidly by while the firestorm that is modern development has raged around it. The curlew seems content with a passive anonymity: it makes no demand for more, shows no tendency towards dominance or control. Despite colonial Australia’s drive to manipulate and exploit the environment to its own benefit, the curlew does not appear unduly outraged by our presence. Often, if you stop near a resting bird, it will close its eyes for a short while then reopen them, just to check on what you’ve been up to in the interim. They give the impression of being happy enough to share the earth with us as long as we leave them in peace. All they ask for is their fair share of room in which to survive.

Thus far we have been unwilling to grant them even that. In the face of a slow-burning holocaust we proceed blithely on with our petrochemical, thermoelectric, polychlorinated lives. We are anxious about the toxic rivers and the disappearing flora and fauna; we agonise over the melting icecaps and the desiccated forests; we gaze in awe at the flame-tinged sunsets and horizons pulsing crimson. Yet we show little stomach to address the real problem of self-interest and greed, as spawned by predatory capitalism. Instead, we whine and growl among ourselves, blaming others for the catastrophe we have wrought or raging at those who dare suggest there might be a problem in the first place.

In the end that is the real difference between us and the curlew, which is to say the difference between humanity today and all other creatures: they will leave the earth quietly, whereas we will go out in a cacophony of self-aggrandisement and recrimination.

Modern-day Australia is enacting the classic Marxian dialectic of rapacious prosperity shot through with imminent disintegration. We cannot help but covet more rapid growth, greater profits, better living conditions—even when the charge towards affluence brings with it the seeds of inevitable demise. White settler culture has become one of ruthlessly defended fortifications: against First Nations people, against refugees and other outsiders, and from the very environment around us. As New York magazine’s David Wallace-Wells so frankly puts it, such isolationism is leading towards an earth that ‘will likely become close to uninhabitable [by] the end of this century’, and Australia will become more uninhabitable more quickly than most.

The bleakness of this outlook is hardly new. As long ago as 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius gained a Nobel Prize for his work warning of a greenhouse effect powered by industrialisation that could cause global temperatures to rise by up to four degrees. Regardless, over the proceeding one hundred and twenty years no amount of evidence supporting Arrhenius’s claim has been enough to divert white Australia from the project of pillaging the terrain upon which it was founded. Nothing has deterred it from disdaining the Indigenous practices that served the land so well for the preceding fifty millennia. Nothing has stopped it from ignoring the steady vanishing of benign creatures like the bush stone curlew.

In her 1973 poem ‘Lament for Passenger Pigeons’ Judith Wright evokes the processes that drove this bird to extinction. She ponders how nature is ‘changing to the tunes we chose’ before coming to the realisation that our obstinately pragmatic, entrepreneurial approach to the environment is at the core of the problem: ‘Whatever being is, that formula, it dies as we pursue it past the word / We have not asked the meaning, but the use’. On matters of ecology Wright was one of Australia’s greatest thinkers, but under extreme capitalism, poetry and art are like nature: things of beauty to be trampled underfoot if they present as barriers to progress.

‘We have not asked the meaning, but the use.’ Oblivious of its deeper significance, disdainful of its true value, we are on course to drag the curlew to the same ultimate ruination as the passenger pigeon. The curlews of the Botanic Gardens are not simply occupants of our world. They have fashioned a world of their own, a world in miniature with its own social life and its own topography. A little world of secluded resting spots amid rock gardens or under drooping palm fronds; of obscure pathways and secret meeting places. But also a world perpetually cluttered by discarded bottles glinting in the sun, by plastic wrappers blown through on the breeze. A world cordoned off by a filthy brown river and highways crammed with vehicles. A world presided over by a smog-thickened sky that at night allows only a handful of stars to poke dimly through.

A 1917 article from Brisbane’s Daily Mail shows how the bush stone curlew has occupied this green metropolitan island for generations. Titled ‘Twilight in the Botanic Gardens’, it documents the ‘long, pitifulness of the curlew’s voice’ emanating from the bamboo—the same row of bamboo where today the bird’s descendants can be found secreting themselves. Only three years earlier, the last passenger pigeon on earth died in a zoo in Ohio—one of hundreds of species condemned to extinction in the twentieth century. Now it is the curlew that crouches like a ghost in the shadows of all of those lost creatures, waiting for that future time when it too will exist only in photographs or behind museum glass.

Now and then around Brisbane a curlew can be seen standing alongside a glass facade staring for hours, befuddled by its own reflection. Passers-by are predictably amused to see a bird engaging in such behaviour. But mightn’t we learn even from this? When might we look into the mirror and truly be troubled by what we see?

About the author

Dean Biron

Dean Biron teaches in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent fragments have appeared in Overland, Meanjin, Screen Education, The Conversation and The Guardian.

More articles by Dean Biron

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Fantastic, evocative piece by Dean Biron. The curlew’s haunting sound should be viewed as a call to conscience to tackle species extinction and improvised life worlds as nature recedes from our cities.

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