Backyard gum trees provide homes and food for multiple species, but as building density in suburbia increases, the pressure on this important habitat has intensified.
New Year’s Eve and I’m up on a ladder cleaning out our gutters. This wet La Niña Christmas, the large Eucalyptus pilularis in our yard has been showering us with gifts of bark, leaves, gum-nutted twigs and long dry branches. A magnificent Blackbutt Gum, it is the tallest tree in the neighbourhood, a stand-out landmark in our low-rise beach-side suburbia. We can see its towering frame as we return from work, or from a tiring visit to the shops; home is where this tree is.
The bounty of bark and branches that it gives us is useful, harvested and put aside for winter kindling. The material that gathers in the roof gutter guards is not quite so welcome, but is still gathered and put aside for flower-bed mulch. However, the greatest gift that the gum tree gives us is year-round entertainment.
Every morning, whether the weather is fine or foul, we breakfast on our porch beneath it, to watch the coming and goings of the sparkling Rainbow Lorikeets, to listen to their thrills and whistles and their constant jibber-jabber. Often they are joined by the animated gurgles of pairs of pink Galahs, with whom they noisily dispute, loud discussions on the ownership of the trunk holes, which they’re constantly exploring. Blue-winged Kookaburras play Reveille on the top-most branches, then swoop to scoop and batter unfortunate skinks below. Both types of Corella are frequent visitors: quieter pairs of Long-billed Corellas; and shrieking teenage gangs of Little Corellas, who arrive and depart in white-winged scatterings of noise and nibbled boughs. Their larger cousins, the Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos, often flap in to join them, to shout, clamber and to gnaw, to hang upside down and screech their loud defiance at the world.
In contrast, the visiting Grey Butcherbirds sound so liquidly musical, a joy to hear. Their close relations, the gum tree’s resident Australian Magpies, sing so sweetly, perhaps, to demonstrate that they are not, despite the name, some croaking type of European crow.
This Magpie family are the true guardians of the tree, their sturdy nest engineered onto a topmost fork. Through smoke haze, storms and rains, squabbles with Channel-billed Cuckoos, this nest has resisted all, and helped to safely rear two broods. Excited, we got to watch the Magpie youngsters grow, got to see them learn to flap and fly, got to see them learn to feed, and got to save them from the cat next door. We couldn’t save them from the cars on the road out front though, or from the talons of the Whistling Kite that regularly patrols above. We buried the sad remains of three youngsters below spreading beds of Pig-faced flowers.
I grimly noted another death, from my viewpoint as I cleaned our gutters. A tall eucalypt in a backyard two streets away had turned from green to skeletal dirty brown. Not sure if it was temporary, or perhaps some seasonal tint, I cycled over to check, and found it dry and dead as dirt. Drought, disease, what happened, I’m not sure. It’ll be for the surgeon’s chain saw soon, like so many others of its local brethren, felled for space for Airbnb-ed Granny flats, mega extensions, swimming pools, town-house creep. The rumbling grind of the wood chipper is a daily soundtrack, as the landscape of suburbia changes, flattens into one grey lump.
So far, our backyard Eucalyptus pilularis survives and thrives. The Magpies and Butcherbirds continue to warble and the Lorikeets continue to thrill. Long may they do so.