The rosella's last walk (an eco parable)

This article was published by Eureka Street on 29 April 2018.

On the Monday evening following Easter Sunday we go for a walk along a clifftop above the Ninety Mile Beach in East Gippsland, Victoria. This stretch of land is deeply familiar to my husband, a place where remnant bush edges up to domestic house blocks and stretches down to the beach below.

The ti tree and banksia bushland forms part of the scant wild space remaining in coastland slowly eroded by development.

Only two days before, we had stopped in our tracks, mouths agape, before a barren wasteland of house blocks cleared for sale. Standing under an amputated canopy of green we gazed at empty sky and bare ground. The bulldozers had left nothing to chance; shattered sticks lay across churned dirt.

The first section of the walk we regularly take passes the front yards of a mixture of holiday houses and permanent dwellings. Public access along the clifftop passes their balconies and glassed frontages; windows stare blankly out to the saltwater. Any tree that impedes the view here is summarily topped.

Hurrying across the mown cooch grass verges, I always feel a little exposed, as if I am intruding on private views of the vast ocean. A viewing deck for whale spotting reminds me this is indeed public land.

Andy, my husband, walks not far ahead of me. At the threshold of the bushland he ducks under a ti tree branch. As I stoop to follow him, a small movement on the grass catches my eye. At the corner of the house block on the cusp of the bushland are two brightly coloured birds.

A vibrant lime green bird with blue and red markings at its throat lies prone and unmoving on the grass. The other bird, in the familiar reds and blues of the crimson rosella, is scrabbling along the ground, some inches from its companion.

"As Andy and I stand up from stooping towards the birds our arms brush. We are reluctant to leave. Shyly we ask one another, 'Did that just happen?'"

I speak my husband's name. He stops and turns. 'Look,' I whisper. His eyes follow my hand and take in the birds on the grass, one probably dead, the other twisted with injury. Andy steps out of the ti tree and lifts his eyes, scanning the house and yard.

No obvious cause of injury is visible. The birds are not close to the windows of the house where they may have stunned themselves flying into the glass. The house is dark with the forlorn shadow that shrouds unused holiday houses. There are no tell-tale scattered feathers from a cat attack, no obvious predators, and the dogs of the neighbouring house are lazing on the upstairs balcony behind a glass wall.

The bright green bird lies utterly still in the late afternoon light, showing no signs of life. But the rosella keeps lifting its right wing, then its tail, fanning the blue feathers and collapsing them. It scrabbles with its right claw grabbing at the grass, propelling itself towards its companion. My husband and I glance at each other and down at the birds again.

As the rosella convulsively fans its tail up and out, we see the symmetry of the underside — light blue feathers with a dark blue outline, packed neatly and splayed evenly. The tail repeatedly bursts up and fans open and closes and drops down — beauty and desperation in one awkward rearing motion.

We stand close and unmoving. Everything stops except the bird on the ground. The rosella finishes traversing those few inches of grass and reaches its companion. It rests its craning head on the ground, beak to beak with the other bird. There is no more heaving, the rosella lifts its wing and lays it along the prone body of the bright bird. The open wing lies like a mantle over the dead bird, covering all but its head and tail.

Once in this position the crimson bird raises and releases its tail in a frail salute. After this the only movement is a little shudder of air, the last breath of the rosella.

As Andy and I stand up from stooping towards the birds, our arms brush. We are reluctant to leave. Shyly we ask one another, 'Did that just happen?' We walk silently into the tunnel of ti tree towards gnarled and ageing banksias then back along the beach below.

The next morning we return to find the birds where we last saw them. We photograph them from above in beak-to-beak intimacy. Checking the tattered bird identification book, we learn that the bright green bird is a juvenile rosella.

When we leave them, the two birds remain together, undisturbed on the grass at the clifftop, the wind riffling the wing feathers of the adult bird.

Julie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller and Associate Teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity.