Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bird brain


It started in the Melbourne Museum last December. The Southern Diversity exhibition has lots of stuffed birds and animals, and the way I remember it, in the glass case shown on the left in this photo:

there is a bird that looks like this:

I looked at this bird and mentally said to my nonexistent companion, "Oh look! A Rainbow Lorikeet!" Then looked at its title: Eastern Rosella. Oh.

It was a small thing, but unsettling. I couldn't work out whether I was thinking of the wrong bird or had always mixed up the names. And in what seemed like a cosmic joke, outside the Museum and round the other side of its neighbour, the Royal Exhibition Building, there were more of these birds frolicking in the fountain. They had to be Eastern Rosellas, but were they the same birds I'd always called Rainbow Lorikeets?

When you see the two birds together, it's not clear how anybody with working eyes and a brain could get them confused. Take a look at the Eastern Rosella above, and then look at this Rainbow Lorikeet:

The colours are different. It's obvious when you compare them, but I hadn't ever seen them together, and maybe I've got no visual memory. Even sitting here now, I can't remember what either of them looks like.

However. The other day a bird I would have called a Rainbow Lorikeet flew down and perched on the bushy thing growing outside the window here. Thanks to my tremendous housekeeping skills, the bird book I had consulted about the teeny-weeny feather mystery was still lying right at hand, so it was flick, flick, flick to page 188 and... Damnation! An Eastern Rosella!

And to seal the deal, this morning I saw two more birds I would have called Rainbow Lorikeets, and, armed with binoculars and the trusty bird book, I found them: yes, page 188. Eastern Rosellas.

Damnation. All this time, all this time I had them wrong. It makes no difference to them, of course, but it makes a weirdly significant difference to me. I don't understand what that difference is, mind you, I just know that it matters. I thought they were one thing and yet they were another. And it's not that I'm so upset about being wrong, either, or that's not the whole of it. It's bigger than that. I'm wondering about what the truth means, why it matters, if it really does matter. Education, learning, striving to learn what's real... I've always just assumed they were good things, but what if the truth makes you miserable and does no real good in the world? What's the point? What does it matter?

And obviously the next step in this well-rehearsed waltz is to ask whether anything matters, and if there's an answer to that, it's not going to be found in a blog post. So here's something else instead: if you'd like to identify some of the more frequently sighted Australian birds, ABC's Backyard Birdwatch is very handy, and the source of the bird pics used above. God bless the ABC.