Me and the birds, I think we just got off from wrong foot from the very start. Or is that the wrong claw? I’m not sure. But it seems we’re destined not to get along.
It started at age five when I got pecked on the head by an emu. We were at Billy Goat Hill, this park in my hometown. There were no Billy Goats to be seen but instead plenty of kangaroos, wallabies and emus. Families would flock to the Hill on weekends for barbecues, then feed leftover scraps of food to the wildlife. I was a little tacker and quite unconvinced by the flimsy barrier of chicken wire separating me and this emu with the beady red eyes.
Go on, chuck him some bread! said my stepmother encouragingly.
I wrinkled up my nose.
Come on, he’s a friendly fella!
He was making grunting noises deep in his throat, his eyes darting from side to side. I was sure he could smell my fear, perhaps the wooly hairs on his spindly neck were full of fear-sensing sensor thingies. I trembled and stepped back from the fence, but the emu thrust his head forward and made a grab for the bread, but missed and pecked my head instead.
There was no real damage done, at least not in the short term. Perhaps we can now attribute my various neuroses and inability to find a new job to the brain damage inflicted by that evil bird.
Growing up on a farm, the most common feathered enemy was the magpie. As much as I welcomed the glorious warmth of springtime, I knew it meant Magpie Season. All across the countryside, squawking magpies were hatching squawking magpie babies, and fiercely defended their offspring by dive-bombing all innocent passers-by.
We tried everything to deter them on our walk home from school. Funny hats, umbrellas. Some people say if you wear an ice cream bucket on your head and draw eyes on it with a texta, the magpies will freak out and leave you alone. We tried this, running across an open lucerne paddock, and let me assure you, it does not work. We’d tiptoe through the long grass, glancing nervously at each other, hoping silently that this time we’d make it home unscathed. But then you’d hear a screech and they’d come spiralling out of nowhere, a black and white blur dropping right in front of your face, then soaring upward again.
A particularly vicious magpie lived in a tree just outside our yard. Every morning and night we’d have to go out and feed our herd of pet lambs. We’d brandish two bottles of milk in each hand, so to feed as many lambs at once as possible, yelling at them to drink “faster! faster!” before the magpie realised we were there. But more often than not he’d come barrelling at us and we’d dive to the ground, the lambs prodding us with their snouts to make sure we were alive.
It was Rhiannon who came up with the ingenious solution of the skipping rope. I’d come out with the milk bottles, and she’d walk beside me with her skipping rope, whirling it around her head like a lasso. The evil magpie watched in confusion, but didn’t come anywhere near us.
The ploy worked for weeks, until the magpie got brave and rushed us. Rhiannon wielded the rope with great speed and precision. It whirred like helicopter blades. There was a great thunk, a few feathers and an alarmed Arrrrrrrrk! He survived the ordeal, but didn’t mess with us again.
Most terrifying of all was Plover Season. The plovers were pure evil and lived up the back of my little school. They would perch on a dead gum tree, assembled in rows like a choir. Around August, their chilling voices would rattle down through the pine trees and into the classrooms. Aaaaack ack ack ack
We’d drop our pencils and shudder. They cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. But instead of flying monkeys, we had big white monsters with spurs on their wings.
Plover Season coincided with Athletics Season. Athletics Season meant our little school was thrown into preparations for the Small Schools Athletics Carnival. Even the most uncoordinated clod (eg. yours truly) was forced to participate. Training involved a twenty minute run every morning around the school perimeter. The Sadistic Bastard Principal and the Sadistic Bitch Teacher (who happened to be The Mothership at the time) would stand in the middle of the playing field with their arms folded, laughing and chatting and drinking cups of tea, while us students ran endless laps.
For the most part, the track was good, crunching through beds of pine needles, leaping over cow pats; but there was a large stretch of open space with nothing but a wheat crop and the old dead gum tree. At the sight of two dozen small running kiddies, the plovers would lift off their branches, Aaaaack ack ack ack! My heart turned to shit as they wheeled overhead. We’d squeak and squeal and dive to the ground as the sound of their wings rushed by our ears. Or we’d just run and run and run until we reached the safety of the pine trees.
One day I was on my third lap, red-faced and petrified as I trotted past my mother. I tried to communicate with her with my eyes. Please Mum, I know you’re my teacher and you’re not sposed to do me any favours, but please, don’t make me run up there again. Pretty please?
She took a slow sip of her tea and grinned maliciously. “Come on Shauna. You better pick up the pace, otherwise they’ll catch you and rip your hair off with their spurs!”
Forget performance enhancing drugs, all you need is to sick a flock of plovers onto any given Track team, and then you’ll break some world records.
It’s been years, but my sister and I still get a chill when we hear the wuh wuh wuh wuh wuh of rapidly flapping bird wings. Once we were in Sydney and walking along Darling Harbour when we heard that horrible sound, shrieked simultaneously and dropped to the pavement. It turned out to be a humble pigeon, but you can never be too careful.