There are birds, and then there are birds 18



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When I was just a lad there was a famous ground-level bar at the old Surfers Paradise Hotel which allowed patrons to look into the street while enjoying refreshments.

It was called “The Birdwatchers’ Bar” for reasons I could never deduce. On the many times when I happened to stop by, there wasn’t the slightest chance of seeing a bird – with the possible exception of a confused pigeon or a distressed sparrow – because patrons were being distracted by a non-stop parade of bikini-clad girls.

Once I asked a young bloke who was salivating at what he was seeing if he was an ornithologist. He gave me a very curious look and suggested that I should commit an act upon myself which, even if remotely possible, would have been extremely painful.

I got to thinking about birds in my own innocent way recently when I read about Vietnamese police who got themselves in a right old flap by arresting a group of sixteen pigeons on suspicion of their being Chinese spies.

It seems there is quite a bit of tension between China and Vietnam at the moment over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and no amount of the traditional fraternal greetings between the comrades seems to have led to a resolution.

What got the Da Nang Police Department suspicious was the fact that these pigeons had Chinese characters stamped on their wings in red ink and had rings around their feet. You can’t be too careful so they were taken into custody and an investigation launched.

Thankfully, the birds have been cleared of any clandestine activity as the investigation showed that they were owned by homing pigeon clubs in other Asian countries and had been released over the sea for racing competitions. Either they became exhausted or were just being bloody difficult and contrary, but they ending up landing along the Vietnamese coast.

Mind you, the Chinese themselves are pretty wary of birds.

A feature of the celebration of China’s National Day on October 1 each year is the release of ten thousand doves in Tiananmen Square in the capital, Beijing. It’s all about symbolism – you know the doves of peace and all of that.

Just before last year’s celebration the State-run “People’s Daily” reported that so afraid were authorities of a terrorist attack, they had every single bird subjected to an “anal security check for suspicious objects” and while they were about it, all their feathers were checked as well.

The Beijing security police chief was quoted in another State-run newspaper as saying that the tests well ahead of time was done to ensure they were “not carrying suspicious material” and the whole process was videotaped and the birds loaded into sealed vehicles for the trip to the capital and the big event.

I don’t know if doves are capable of serious thought but if I was one the last thing I would be thinking of after enduring this humiliation, pain and invasion of privacy would be peace. In fact, I’d be spreading the word to my feathered friends that every one of us swoop down on the assembled guests after release and vent orifices while tweeting “bombs away”.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University (USA) have been having lots and lots of fun getting birds pissed. Initially I thought of what happened at my last office Christmas party but these scientists are serious. My initial reaction was that they were the ones with bird brains.

Anyhow, they got a bunch of finches sloshed, bringing their blood alcohol level to .08 per cent which, they advise, is pretty crazy by bird standards. It seems that birds learn to sing in much the same way we learn to talk – indeed, birdsong and speech even rely on the same genes.

Since it’s much easier and somewhat less controversial to keep a bird in a cage and study its brain than keeping a kiddie similarly contained (even if some parents had volunteered their little precious ones), birds give scientists some of our best insights into the brain mechanisms that make speech possible.

“At first we were thinking that they wouldn’t drink on their own because, you know, a lot of animals won’t touch the stuff. But they seem to tolerate it pretty well and be somewhat willing to consume it,” one researcher said.

And guess what? Once they were drunk as an owl – no, I haven’t ever encountered a drunken owl but even when they are sober they look pretty intimidating – they started slurring their songs. “The most pronounced effects were decreased amplitude and increased entropy,” said the researcher which is science-speak for saying their songs became quieter and less organised.

Funny that I thought – not about the less organised bit – but the fact that they become quieter. Some birds I know scream their bloody heads off after a small shandy.

And not all parts of their songs were equally affected – their songs are made up of specific syllables which have distinct acoustic structures – so some were more garbled in tipsy birds than others. Just imagine, “Why, why Delighter…Debra.. Deniser…and so before they knock down the thingy…” and you’ll get the idea.


Have you ever been bird watching? What is your favourite bird? Tell us below.

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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. I am into real birds, the ones with wings..I love them watched a fantastic documentary last night on the ABC about birds

  2. Great tale well written, nice to have a giggle, by the way I’ve met many a tipsy night owl. Funny photo too. I’ve never trusted those pigeon spies. There are hundreds every day secretly meeting under our town clock.

  3. I think birds are the cleverest of all creatures. They can: fly, walk, swim, migrate mimick and become domesticated as well as coming in all manner of shapes and colours. What other creatures can do all of the above? I paint birds as a hobby. This is my latest creation.

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