Friday 20 November 2020

Counting The Birds Of Babel


But where are the birds?
Lucas van Valckenborch
Tower of Babel, 1594

If you were to grasp three seemingly unrelated threads in your hands, Dear Reader: the Tower of Babel, the uber-controversial HS2 rail development in England, and the derring-do of Georgian-era maritime exploration, and I asked you to guess what would pop up if you gave them a slight tug ... 

Probably the oddest thing in the universe

I would admire your thinking if you gave an answer of Babel Fish!, and that would be a long bow I should be proud to draw, but cannot, as the answer comes in the form of the modest Royal Navy officer, navigator and cartographer extraordinaire, Captain Matthew Flinders. There is no attractive likeness of him to be found on the interwebs, so I proffer up a photograph of his famous cat Trim, who stands behind his statue outside the State Library in Sydney.

Cat on a hot tin library roof

Nota bene: If this is all you wish to know and your curiosity is satisfied, then avert your gaze now, as I am about to take you on a merry ride of discoveries, a.k.a. A Lesson.

Whatever one may have to say about the English multi-billion pound high speed rail project, HS2, Your Correspondent, for one, is pretty thrilled by one delightful outcome. It was during excavations around London's old St. James's cemetery by archaeologists last year, readying the ground for Euston Station's upgrade, that the lost grave of Matthew Flinders was unearthed. Athough his reinterment is somewhat delayed by this being Year of the Plague, he is eventually going "home" to Donington in Lincolnshire.

St. James's Churchyard before Euston Station encroached &
Where Flinders was first lost then found

While this talented navigator, hydrographer and scientist is mostly unknown outside of Australia (and Donington), his is a household name here*. Flinders had learnt his craft under the tutelage of Captain William Bligh**, of the infamous Bounty, who in turn had his navigational skills honed by the preeminent Captain James Cook. He subsequently filled gaps on maps, proved things, named things (he was modest, however, and named nought after himself, just Flinders Island for his brother Samuel), got wrecked & rescued and generally dazzled brightly for a short career. 

Do you see Trim?
Loyal to the end

It was during one of Flinders' celebrated journeys that we come upon our Tower of Babel thread. Between the Australian mainland and Tasmania there is a group of islands by the name of Furneaux*** where Flinders and fellow Fens-man George Bass (naval surgeon and naturalist) were doing a bit of high-end surveying from the tiny sloop Norfolk in 1799 - circumnavigating and mapping Van Dieman's Land and proving the existence of the Strait to be named Bass - and Flinders named a remote, granite island within it Babel, for the confusion of voices of the astonishing numbers of roosting penguins, geese, shags, gulls and petrels getting down to the business of domestic chores and child-rearing on its 440 hectares.

One of the rather unsuitable survey ships
From which great scientific strides were made

It was Flinders' second voyage to this neck o' the woods within a year. His first was aboard the schooner Francis, sent to survey the islands as one of a party on a shipwreck recovery mission.

Flinders charting on the Francis voyage
Engraving detail by John Buckland Wright, 1946

He writes in his later published narrative of his voyage, his witnessing, what he was not to know at the time, a great flock of migratory petrels which had come to the Furneaux Islands to roost from the Bering Sea, and where Babel Island has the largest rookery:

There was a stream of from fifty to eighty yards in depth and of three hundred yards, or more, in breadth; the birds were not scattered, but flying as compactly as a free movement of their wings seemed to allow; and during a full hour and a half this stream of petrels continued to pass without interruption at a rate little inferior to the swiftness of a pigeon. On the lowest computation I think the number could not have been less than a hundred millions.

If this seems a fantabulous and unlikely number, Australian historian Ernest Scott did his own calculation in his 1914 biography of Flinders, where he did not dispute the reliableness of Flinders' estimate, and arrived at 151,500,000 birds.

These petrels, short-tailed shearwaters (Ardenna  tenuirostris), are known commonly as mutton-birds around these parts and nest in burrows, which is rather handy for harvesting (except when there is a venomous snake lurking at the end of one's reach). They're a bird that has long been part of the Aboriginal diet and indeed Babel Island is now a privately-owned island where a Tasmanian Aboriginal community come to commercially harvest eggs, birds for meat and oil, and feathers, once. Early Colonial settlers to this country had many an occasion when mutton-birds saved them from starvation. So they're looked upon benignly. And consequently, the giddy bird count of 1798 is more typically just the mere tens of millions.

Mutton-birding in the Furneaux Islands with 1955 style

Alongside our friend, the Bogong Moth, they're recently showing some erratic and dramatic reduction in numbers. For the birds, it would appear that there's not enough food in the North Pacific to give them sufficient sustenance to undertake their epic annual journey. Even on a good year, mutton-birds fall from the sky along the coast of Australia, just too pooped to make it to any of the number of rookeries on islands around south-eastern Australia, washing up on beaches sometimes in their thousands.

Mutton-bird 30,000km migratory route
Illustration by Craig Smith, 2019
From children's book Windcatcher by Diane Jackson Hill

For those on the lookout for these endearing seabirds, there has been plenty of chatter about dwindling numbers and notable absences. But this could be a temporary blip, and a recent article in the Audubon Society's magazine hopefully suggests that breeding has lately taken a back-seat to foraging in Antarctica for those that survive the lean seasons in the Arctic, for they are long-lived birds (over 40 years) and will make several million kilometres flight over their lifetimes, so in better times will come back to Babel to contribute their thrumming and chugging train-like voice to the rest.****

* Where all school children learn that his charts are still used today and he coined the name Australia for what was called New Holland. 

** When poking about on the Naval Historical Society of Australia website, I did discover that Flinders had a hiccough in the eyes of the disciplinarian Bligh, and occasioned a demotion for a time. It is inferred that the cause was "the favours of attractive and uninhibited South Sea maidens", leaving the young midshipman with venereal disease and the only blot on his otherwise unblemished copybook. It is here I found the suggestion it contributed to his early demise at 40.

*** In one of those peculiar coincidences, whilst I was perusing a bit of interweb cartography for this post, Mr. P and I were having a side conversation about Vansittartism, arising from our both reading London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes, and lo! there is a Vansittart Island in the Furneaux Group!

**** And a surprising boost to the numbers could come this year in that Plague-Times has meant restrictions on the numbers of eligible persons to set foot on Babel and its sister islands for harvest season.

Image credits: 1: Wikimedia Commons; 2 John (Viet-Triet) Nguyen via; 3, 5: Flying With Hands; 4, 6: via Google; 7: Antipodean Books; 8: via 1993 PhD thesis of Irynej Skira @ UTas; 9: CSIRO Publishing


  1. I've always loved the Tower of Babel painting. It must have been a commission; I cannot imagine any painter sitting down to all that work unless he knew he was to be well paid.

  2. Cro: I like this version better than the Bruegel - is it sacrilege to say such things? I never thought about the why's but it does seem unlikely it would be painted just to while away the time.


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Bats In The Belfry