The moon was bright and almost full and there was a crisp chill in the air, bringing the promise of a frost by morning. It was midnight and I had gone outside to enjoy one or two ‘rollies’ prior to preparing for bed. I stepped away from the house, beyond the glow coming from the kitchen window. And there the moonlight rivalled the crisp air. Leaves hanging from the tree in front of me were motionless, as though frozen in time and space. But the smoke from my cigarette was caught and drifted, before dissipating, betraying the illusion of stillness. Tempting me to ‘stub out’ and preserve the delusion. But I was caught by the fascination, the intent in the smoke to drift purposely, when everything else indicated inertia. The cold seeped into me, but despite its icy grip, I sat down to listen to a chorus of song.

Amongst the trees along the road and the dry creek, the clear clarinet-like notes came to me. Even further away (nearly two kilometres) along the Marne River, softened by distance, the chorus embraced me. From time to time there was silence, and then one performer would recommence to carol again, briefly as a soloist. Only to be answered by several other competitive warblings. Wherever one orchestra terminated, others would pick up the composition in competitive gusto, and then another pause. Sometimes recommencing in the distance, at other times close by.

As with the best professional entertainers, the perfection of the notes takes second place to the harmonising. The enjoyment of listening comes from the singer’s capacity to hold the listener in suspense. To keep them captivated and spellbound. Their ability to remove, even if only for a short period, the worries and preoccupations of living; to bring some peace of mind, which is more than many of us can hope to achieve alone. This is what sets them apart.

And so it was with these performers, even though the songs were something of a repetitive chorus. The combinations set it apart. At times drifting to me and then away, like the dissipating smoke. At other times crisp as the chilled air and clear like the bright moonlight, without the harshness of the sun. Mixing a rise in volume in one choir with a fall from another. Making imprecise notes harmonise, sudden bursts fading to a lingering end with solo singers between. Only to burst out again then drift away.

People pay to hear a performance of this quality. They come to the theatre frustrated from searching for a car park, and jostling in the crowd while looking for a seat. Sit throughout in an overheated, stuffy room and tolerate the rowdy applause. Then jostle with the crowd again, on leaving and dodge the traffic to get home.

I was eventually and reluctantly driven inside by the cold. But my seat on the log was free, with nobody to protest about my smoking. And the choice of the time to leave was mine. With the only complaint, the crunching of the gravel under my feet.

The concert would go on and on like this until dawn, after the sunrise revealing and starting to melt the white frost-covered grass. And then a final crescendo, a finale of chorus that would terminate with the odd individual here and there continuing to sing. Attempting to be heard as the last performer. All this with the sole intention that their only audience would be amongst themselves.

Daylight signifies ‘business as usual’, time to get back to foraging for sustenance, and housework. To collect sticks and other suitable materials required for nest- building.

These night time performances herald the oncoming of Spring; and as appealing as they may sound, they are in fact a raging war. A war of song, to establish territory in which to nest and raise offspring. Still and calm nights allow the voices to carry greater distances. And let the competitors know, ‘this is my place, do not encroach beyond the boundary of where my song is clear’.

Humans usually consider the first of September as the beginning of Spring. But in this dry country White-backed Magpies know better. They know the Winter is short and the long Summers are harsh and dry, that Spring is, in reality, merely a brief interlude between the two; when the weather is fickle and at its most unpredictable period. At best it begins in mid-August and is over before two months have passed.

More importantly still is they are aware that a war of song is preferable to one where blood is shed. To ‘rattle their sabres’, and only draw them as a last resort. Even if it requires the sacrifice of going without sleep on cold frosty nights.

May-June 2005