It is said that the sky was once so close to the Earth that the trees could not grow. It is said that the sky gripped the land of Australia and all the Earth in such a way that birds were forced to walk and men could not stand tall beneath its weight. So it was, until the clever birds intervened.
Working together, the birds forced sticks in the small gap between the Earth and sky and, all at once, began to lift it up. They carried it higher and higher, flying for the very first time. The sky began to grow lighter and lighter until, eventually, it split open. It hung high above the Earth, sunshine and wind falling from it. Far below, the trees began to grow and the humans stood up to feel the sun and the wind. And the clever birds, who were responsible, rejoiced at the dawn, as they still do today.
Somewhere beneath the sky, the Jeemuluk, a proud and stout little bird with a deafening song all of its own, scampered into a patch of scrub bush. It had decided not to bother itself with the sky, nor with the humans who now walked about everywhere beneath it.
When the white people came to Australia, the indigenous peoples who met them along the west coast thought they were the pale dead returning from the afterlife across the sea. The white people were few in number, but they quickly swelled to a tide that washed over the shores of the continent. And, wherever they went, the past began to disappear. They were, at best, amused by a history that involved birds raising up the sky, or a giant serpent carving rivers and gorges into the land. And so, they began to drive indigenous peoples and stories off of their land and took ill-care of it in their place.
The white people would first meet the Jeemuluk in 1842. Proud and noisy as it was, the bird was still elusive and kept to the dense and tangled scrub that had been its home since the very first dawn. But the white people burned the land too freely, turning the scrub into ash and farmland. And so the Jeemuluk, too, found its home disappearing around it. When they encountered it, the white people named it the Noisy Scrub-bird and, by the end of the century, they called it extinct.
In 1961, a man named H.O. Webster fished the shore of Two Peoples Bay on the southern coast of Australia. As a bird-lover, his mind was captured one day by a song rising from the dense brush just off the beach. The song was high and heavy and irresistible, defying all others in the air. But, despite knowing the area and all its birds, Webster could not discern its origin. Leaving the water behind him, he waded into the scrub in search of it. The Noisy Scrub-bird was reluctant to reveal itself to men again, however, and darted away from him.
Three years later, a man named R.H. Stranger travelled to Two Peoples Bay as part of an expedition to find the Scrub-bird. Stranger found the tilting landscape of the bay crawling with scrub which shivered with the songs and wings and feet of birds. The bushes meshed together and flowered across the hillsides, rising up metres high and then sinking back into the earth.
The expedition surrounded the scrub with nets and forced their way in. They kicked and shouted at the knotted bushes, fighting their way from one side to the other. When they found their nets empty, they turned about and trampled back through the scrub again, driving any small creatures before them. Once more, they found the nets at the perimeter to be empty. Eventually, they realised that any sensible Scrub-bird would be far away from them by now, having disappeared through whatever secret passages it knew into the bush as soon as it had been disturbed by human feet.
The humans chose a new hunting ground – one where the scrub was shallower and the birds seemed more present. Once again, they arranged their nets and fought their way into the scrub. The air thickened with birds calling out “human” or “snake” or “eagle” or whichever danger they presumed had entered the scrub. This carried on, until one of the humans called out,
"There is a bird in the net.”
Stranger was closest and he struggled through the brush towards it. There was the bird, small but solid, its body smooth brown with a pale throat and deep, black lines drawn onto its wings and back. Its tail fanned out as it leapt from side to side within the net.
“Atrichornis!” Stranger named it. As he took it into his hands, his companions rushed forward and named it too. They called it the Noisy Scrub-bird, not Jeemuluk. It was a female, they agreed. She was quiet and apparently calm. She did not kick, scratch or bite as other birds might. She simply stretched her narrow legs, unsure of the world she was in.
The humans rejoiced quietly and respectfully in the bird’s presence. Here she was: the Noisy Scrub-bird, returned after nearly a hundred years of silence. They stroked every feather with their tools; they measured and traced the patterns upon her back and wings. They translated her into numbers and longer words. They explained the shape and shade of her eyes as she looked up at them. And she grew ever more still and quiet.
Soon, the bird had closed her eyes and she would not open them unless some stray finger or instrument startled her. Her feathers became increasingly untidy as she stopped fidgeting them back into place. Her wings sagged as though broken. She had been sat in the hands of these humans for too long, after her thousands of years of freedom within the scrub. Stranger recognised her condition, though. Some birds, he knew, would lash out upon capture and try to win their freedom back at once. Others would simply stop, seeming to fade once they were separated from the wilderness. This seemed as if it would be the Noisy Scrub-bird’s fate.
The humans argued amongst themselves. Some wanted to release the bird then. Others said there was still too much to learn from her. Stranger held her. He examined the shape of her fractured feathers, emptied of any energy. He observed the dark, stuttering patterns of her body and cupped her dangling legs.
“She will be okay,” he announced, uncertainly.
They placed the bird into a cage and observed her. In less than half an hour, the wild began to return to her legs. She untucked them from beneath her and tried her wings. She began to jump and then to dance about, once again proud and expectant of freedom. The humans withdrew her then and examined her a final time. When they had recorded all that they could, Stranger placed a yellow band above her foot, so that he would recognise her if they ever met again. And they set her free.
The bird tested her feet on the Earth; hopping about as if she was trying to confirm whether this was the same Earth that she had left not long before. And then she disappeared.
Stranger woke early the next day and wandered the empty camp. The scrub vibrated in the morning light as the birds whispered through its closed branches. They hunted and called for mates; fighting and dancing. One song rose up, constant and defiant of the others; a stream of bushes besides the track crackled with a proud “cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep”.
Stranger followed the song down the track, waiting at times and then eagerly pressing on. When he came very close to the sound, a bush began to shiver. He held his ground. In the scrub, black patterns flashed upon brown feathers and threatened to disappear.
And then the bird stood before him. A black band stretched across its pale, silent throat. This was a male. He stood still and close to Stranger. He seemed startled, as if he had not been the one drawing Stranger in this whole time. Then, he turned his head and was gone. As simple as that. Disappearing, as the Noisy Scrub-bird, or the Jeemuluk, is known to do.
“When I held that Scrub-bird in my hands at Two Peoples Bay, I was holding more than just a rare species. I was holding a prehistoric link with antiquity, a messenger now poised on the verge of extinction…[I] felt the softness of its feathers, the warmth of its body, saw the gleams in its eye, the life in its limbs, removed stray feathers from the sweat of my hand. I wonder if I ever will again. Or will the species disappear into that nothingness which is beyond the hands of man for all time, or until the earth is created again?”
- R.H. Stranger
- Australian Government Department of the Environment. 2016. Noisy Scrub-bird (Atrichornis clamosus) Recovery Plan. http://www.environment.gov.au/node/15750
- Birdlife International. 2016. Noisy Scrub-bird Atrichornis clamosus. http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/factsheet/22703612
- ABC. 2012. Noisy scrub bird is coming back from the brink. http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2012/06/21/3530588.htm
- YouTube. 2013. Two Peoples Bay -- Treasures of the South Coast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GTm9u0WKw8.
- A. Danks, A.A. Burbidge, A.H. Burbidge, G.T. Smith, 2009. Noisy Scrub-bird Recovery Plan. Wildlife Management Program 12.
- R.H. Stranger. The Day I Held the Scrub-Bird. The Passenger Pigeon.