What Bird Was That?

by Nick Drayson

© all rights reserved

The woodpecker was on the gum tree, doing what woodpeckers do. In case you’ve never seen one in action, they hang on to a dead branch head up with legs splayed, toes spread and claws dug well in, braced by a very stiff tail, and peck that wood. Wonderful, really – well what animal isn’t if you watch it for a while? But then I realised – it wasn’t pecking, it was tapping.

At home I used to have this wondrous device ( I have no idea how it works, and I wish I could remember who I lent it to) that told me where the wood is behind the gyprock so that I knew where to put in a nail or a screw when I’m hanging a picture on the wall. So when I wanted to put up the new fish pictures a couple of months ago and I couldn’t find the thing I had to resort to the old method – the one I used to use – of tapping the wall and listening. Hollow sound, air, duller sound, wood. That’s what this woodpecker  was doing. Tapping and listening, tapping and listening, until it found that hollow sound that meant some wood-boring grub had burrowed beneath the surface of the branch. Only then did the woodpecker  stop tapping and start pecking. Wood chips flew as that chisel beak opened up the insect’s burrow. I didn’t see the long barbed tongue shoot down the hole, but I did see a fat white grub appear briefly in the bird’s beak before it was tossed back and swallowed and the woodpecker  moved on up the gum tree.

By now some of you will might be thinking that I’m trying to gammon you. Gum tree, woodpecker?   There are no woodpeckers in Australia. Quite right, and you are not the first to notice to this. When the great English ornithologist John Gould visited Australia in the 1830s, he was struck by this very fact.

“Australia,” he wrote, “is destitute of Woodpeckers… Barbets and Trogons’. Not only that, there were ‘no true Wagtail… no Saxicola… no mavis… no Philomel”. Which is true, but when we analyse this lament we find that it reveals just as much about human expectations as ornithological distribution. Were an Australian native to have visited Britain at the same time, he might equally have wondered where were the honeyeaters,  bowerbirds or emus. What strange, impoverished land could this be that had not a single parrot?   Gould seemed oblivious to this other side of the coin of new experience, but in doing so he was doing no more than all of us do every day. He was expecting the known.

Human expectations have proved a thorny issue for philosophers. We often find that the principles of abstract logic seem to apply to the real world. The syllogism is a good example. If all As are B, then if this is an A, it must be B: if all swans are white, then if this bird is a swan it must be white; if all crows are black, then if this bird is white it cannot be a crow. If no woodpeckers are found in Australia, then if this bird is a woodpecker we cannot be in Australia. But can we extend this principle, and describe the world solely in terms of abstract logic? Many have tried, and many have failed.

The central difficulty is what has become known as the Problem of Induction. In every country Gould had visited, he had found woodpeckers. He expected to find them in Australia. He did not, and was surprised. But though it may be quite reasonable for him to expect woodpeckers in Australia, it was not logical. Induction, the use of past experience to help anticipate future discovery, is somehow outside the realm of logical description. No matter how many white swans we have seen, there is no unbreakable connection between these sightings and the colour of the next swan we see – as the first European visitors to Australia were to discover.  No matter how many times A is B, we cannot conclude logically that all As are B. Like love, induction is not amenable to logical analysis.

When we hear the words “gum tree”, we think of Australia. For reasons known only to themselves and Alfred Russell Wallace, just as woodpeckers  refused to move east across that invisible line between Indonesia and New Guinea that is a barrier between so many plants and animals, gum trees never seemed to have moved west. Until Europeans arrived that it is, and began carrying the tiny seeds to all corners of the world, from Kenya to California.   And it is not only gums that have been widely planted overseas.   The woodpecker reached the end of the dead branch and flew off to another tree nearby. I recognised the leaves and the large yellow blossoms. The biggest of our Grevilleas, the silky oak, is also doing very well in the high hills of Sri Lanka.


Nicholas Drayson completed a PhD in nineteenth-century Australian natural history writing and has published many essays on Australian natural history for many years. In 1988 he published a collection of nature writing titled Wildlife: Australia’s Flora And Fauna Gently Observed. In 2003 he won the Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize for his autobiography Strictly for the Birds. He has also published a novel, Confessing a Murder (2002).

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