Work in Sports
Aussies are bird-brained
Reminders that setting is extraordinary
SYDNEY, Australia -- At first glance, the Olympic Park at Homebush Bay could be anywhere; the landscape surrounding it is flat and undistinguished and the singular beauty of Sydney Harbour seems far away. But every once in a while you get reminders that this setting is extraordinary.
My first day here I saw a red, parrot-like bird with a splash of bright blue under its wings flying through a row of palm trees. Curious, I asked a pair of the omnipresent Olympic Park volunteers -- who, interestingly, wear identifying jackets of equally extravagant hues -- what kind of bird I had seen. Neta, a "spectator host" from south of Sydney, was sure, given my description, that the bird was probably a crimson rosella. "Unless it had other colors, too, like green and yellow, and then it would be an eastern rosella," she said. She paused, then added: "Of course, if it was pink and gray, it would have been a galah [ga-LAH], which is a very stupid bird. If anyone calls you a galah, it's an insult."
As I tucked away that bit of useful information, a smallish, grayish bird appeared behind us on a tree and started chirping. "Now that," said Neta, "is a noisy mynah, which is a lovely bird with little spikes on its tongue to help it get honey. It is not to be confused with that imported bird, the Indian mynah. That's a ghastly, horrible bird." Why? "Because it moves in on native birds' habitats and kicks them out," Neta said, offended at the thought.
So was Neta, in addition to being a volunteer versed in the location of all the Olympic facilities, also a naturalist? "Well," she said, "I am a bit of a birdwatcher, but I think most people in Australia are." Indeed, her volunteer partner, Tony, went on to tell me about birds in Queensland who had never seen people but would nonetheless land on your hand. "Magpies will do that, too, if you have meat in your hand," he added. "And people love to have kookaburras [a bird with a big beak and a laughing call] around. People will put a bit of mincemeat [translation: butcher scraps] on the clotheslines to lure them to their backyard. The kookaburra then adopts the house."
I tried to imagine asking an average American about the territorial habits of, say, a crow and could only picture blank stares. Was every Aussie this in touch with his feathered neighbors? When I came across another volunteer duet (field note: the spectator host almost always travels in pairs), I gave the same description of the bird I had seen, and pointed vaguely to the trees where I had spotted it. Patrick smiled and said, "Oh, that sounds like a lorikeete. They love fruit trees. Especially figs." His partner, Bernie, a native of South Africa who says he knew nothing about nature before he moved to Australia 28 years ago, added that lorikeetes were "lovely" birds that, like magpies, can be trained to eat out of your hand. "If you keep feeding them, they'll tell their friends, who'll come over and eat out of your hand, too," he said.
Beryl, a rare lone spectator host I encountered later, told me that magpies were "cheeky" birds that will attack you if you walk between them and their nests during breeding season. "Some people wear hats with eyes on the back, so the maggie will attack that instead of their head," she said. Had she ever left mincemeat on her clothesline for a kookaburra? No, but she did like to feed them chopped-up frankfurters. "The bird thinks it's an insect and bashes it back and forth to kill it," she said, smiling slyly. And then she walked away, laughing at the thought.
SI For Women writer Kelli Anderson is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Anderson's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.