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A Cautionary Tale


It's mid-summer here in southeastern Australia and yesterday's weather bulletin promised us a max of less than 35 degrees for the first time in a week or so, so I took the opportunity to get the lawn mower out and do a bit of tidying in the yard. We've had a bit of rain and the grass is loving it: it grows tall and dense and lush and green so that the horses in the paddock up the road cast covetous glances at it whenever the breeze blows the scent of it in their direction. I thought I'd better do something about it before we found ourselves having to use a machete to hack our way out of the house.


In my neighbour's back yard there is a plum tree that leans over our fence, and as always at this time of year it's covered in fruit, weighing down its branches so they droop almost to the ground. These aren't those nice, big, fat, rounded, juicy plums that you buy in the supermarket. No, these are small, about the size of your average cherry, and they have a quite bitter flavour so we don't eat them.


The white cockatoos who live in the neighbourhood love them, and they flock down to this tree and tear it to pieces whenever they feel like a bit of a snack on some fruit. They're not after the plums themselves; what they like is the pits inside. So they strip the flesh away and drop it on the ground, and then they crunch up the pit and snack on its innards. We don't mind that, they're quite beautiful birds with their snowy white plumage and a rather saucy, sulphur-yellow crest on the top of their head, but they make a dreadful mess under the tree. Twigs, leaves, mushed up fruit, all discarded in an untidy heap. It can get quite smelly when the over-ripe fruit starts to ferment in the sun, and then various insects turn up and - party time! - proceed to get falling-down drunk on the juice.


So, before I could mow the grass, I had to clear all that up. Which I did, but of course I couldn't remove all the squished plums. I even added to the mess by treading on some of them and squishing them even more. Then I ran them over with the mower and chopped it all into little pieces. I figured it'll be good fertiliser for the grass.


Now that part of the yard is frequented by a male blackbird, who clearly regards it as his exclusive territory and he's not about to let anyone else sneak in there for a snack. Cockatoos he leaves alone, as they're at least three times his size and they just sneer at him if he tries to see them off. But other birds, well, that's a different story.


So I'm sitting down in the shade on my deck, steaming gently in the soft breeze after my exertions with the mower, watching Sir Blackbird chowing down on the plum mush that I left for him, when - uh-oh! - a couple of starlings show up. Maybe you know about them, even if you're not much of a twitcher. If you're not familiar with them, let's just say these guys have attitude. They're not about to let some puffed-up, self-important blackbird snaffle all the food and boss them around.


They fly down and start tucking into the plums, and the blackbird takes exception.


"Oi!" he tweets, furious at their impudence. "That's mine! Get out of it, both of you."


He sets to chasing one of them, who makes a show of fleeing. Meanwhile, the second starling is busy behind the blackbird's back, scoffing down plums like there's no tomorrow.


"Right," says Sir Blackbird, "that's one sorted out, now for the other."


He turns around and goes for starling number 2, who does a theatrical exit stage left, just as his colleague had done. Meanwhile, starling number 1 is back on the ground, scoffing down plums like there's no tomorrow.


Sir Blackbird sees this, and turns around to chase the trespasser away. What happens next? I suspect you can guess.


Starling 1 does another fake exit, while starling 2 pops down and starts scoffing. Sir Blackbird turns to chase starling 1, who exits in mock terror while starling 2 pops down for a quick feed. And so it goes on.


The result: Starlings 76, Blackbird 0. And the blackbird's knackered from leaping around like a mad thing chasing starlings. In the end he retreats and sits on the fence, sulking and gasping for breath, while the insouciant starlings fill their boots*. (The weather bureau got it wrong - the air temperature had reached 35 degrees by this point.)


I couldn't help but be reminded of all those times in life when, like the blackbird, someone's greed and selfishness led to them losing out to another person who was less greedy, more patient, and better at strategic thinking.


There was more than enough food under that tree to feed a whole flock of blackbirds, and a flock of starlings, with a bit left over for the sparrows to snack on as well.


If Sir Blackbird had been less greedy and more inclined to share, everyone would have been able to eat their fill. And there would have been no need for anyone to run around like a lunatic, in full sunlight, on a 35-degree day.


The white cockatoos watched on, rolling their eyes and shaking their sulphurous yellow crests while amicably sharing the abundant fruit still on the tree.


"Laugh?" observed one, wryly. "Mate, if it wasn't so tragic, I'd cackle like a bloody Kookaburra."


*"Fill ya boots, mate" - an Aussie invitation to eat your fill

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