This new normal’s for the birds: I’m missing my lockdown nest

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Ah, Sydney in spring. The vivid violet trail of jacaranda flowers lining the slippery streets, the native lilac, flame trees and bottlebrush in bloom, daisies popping up all over the place, the scent of jasmine in the air and the unmistakable pre-dawn cry of the koels.

Permit me if you will a bit of a sleep-deprived vent about these birds. You know the two-syllabled sound – ko-el – which repeats and repeats and repeats until you want to scream as loudly at him as you would the neighbour using the leaf blower to SHUT UP!

Spring in Sydney seems a little noisier this year as we emerge from our COVID cocoon.Credit:Steven Siewert

There’s nothing that says summer is approaching more than the sound of the male koel cuckooing early in the morning. Surely, anyone woken by the solo cry of these creatures – looking for a female with whom to start a duet – must have pondered the same question I did about 4am one day last week: why hasn’t anyone thought of a dating app for birds? A Tinder for feathered friends?

As noted in Column 8, the koels made an early appearance in Sydney this year: the first recorded complaint was lodged on July 25. This is unusually early for the black migratory bird with the red eyes that flies in from Papua New Guinea, usually around September, looking for a partner. Climate change, regular readers solemnly suggested.

In folklore, the familiar call of the koel is seen as a harbinger of stormy weather.Credit:Geoffrey Dabb

Whatever the migratory patterns of this brood parasite, one thing I know for sure is they love to nestle in the fiddle leaf fig tree in my neighbour’s garden. Koels, members of the cuckoo family, are known to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the unsuspecting new parents to raise their chicks.

So they kick out their hosts, usually honeyeaters and wattlebirds, live off their largesse, feast on fruit, make more noise than any partying Irish backpackers I’ve had as neighbours, and leave their kids for someone else to raise. What freeloaders!

Like a kookaburra’s laugh, folklore has it that the koels – also known as rainbirds or stormbirds – usually herald stormy weather approaching. How appropriate for us all as we emerge from lockdown because the road back to the new normal has been bumpy for many.

This struck me one morning this week when the resident koel woke me first, followed by the early morning blast from airplanes flying overhead. And the sound of road traffic, which had diminished to a trickle during the months of lockdown. Suddenly, I had a pang to return to the comfortable cocoon of stay-at-home orders.

Sydney rediscovered something of itself during lockdown.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Ah, remember those good old days: calendars empty of social engagements. No alarms, no frenetic pace, few cars on the road, great parking and – even better – no parking tickets.

All across Sydney, dormitory suburbs filled with commuters became communities again, where people walked on the streets and stopped and said hello to each other. A return to a simpler, slower Sydney, when all there was to talk about was the show you had streamed the night before, or the new meal you’d cooked from scratch because you had time: Everything pared back just to the essentials, so that the superfluous crap just fell by the wayside.

I find myself preferring to use Zoom now rather than meet in real life, saying no to social engagements, and feeling more content with less busyness.

I’m not for any moment suggesting this has been an easy era for most. Those who have lost loved ones to coronavirus, suffered with it themselves, lost jobs, had to care for elderly family or help navigate children and young people through home study, bouts of poor mental health and isolation.

As we emerge collectively from the chrysalis, life remains challenging for many. There were tears not just from kindergarteners at the school opposite my home on the day they returned, but also parents, teachers and older students.

A neighbour who has started back at work in office told me she’d had some teething problems getting things done. First she forgot her computer charging cord, then her headphones (to the annoyance of her office mates), then on the third day forgot her laptop altogether. “I just don’t know how I ever left the house before,” she said.

As we head back to school, offices and on public transport, we are all slightly tentative seeing life with new eyes now.

It’s like the grief that occurs after significant losses: of people, places, jobs, identities and relationships. No wonder many of us are longing for lockdown again and what comes next. It could be the time of the “great resignation” and the “great break-up”. We are in transition, not just the seasons, but ourselves.

It is a clarion call as loud as a koel’s cry, to ask as the poet Mary Oliver once did: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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