by Courtney Taylor
In the midst of the urban city lies a tranquil oasis, a place full of trees, wide open spaces, ponds, grassy rolling hills; a place full of joy, of peace, of serenity. And best of all, full of birds.
Sitting in the middle of the park, you can easily lose yourself to the calming sounds. The rumbling of aeroplanes on their ascent out of Sydney and the cars rushing past are a vague whisper – these city sounds are somehow diminished by the calls and chirpings of birds.
This year marks the 21st year of Sydney Park’s transformation from waste tip to green oasis. The local community is celebrating with a series of talks about the park and the many creatures living within its boundaries.
‘Birds of Sydney Park’ was presented on Sunday 1 April by Katherine Oxenham, the City of Sydney Urban Ecology Manager, and Holly Parsons, project manager of the Birdlife Australia program Birds in Backyards. The talk focused on the different species of birds in the park and what people can do to improve habitats for birds in their own gardens.
An ecology survey conducted by the City of Sydney Council in 2010 revealed that after many years of community-supported improvements to the urban environment, over 50 types of birds, mammals, frogs, and reptiles live in the local government area.
Unfortunately, while this seems like an overwhelming number of species for an urban area, far more needs to be done. “We’re still coming to terms with the impact we have on the environment,” says research scientist and ecologist Dr Richard Major, of the Australian Museum. “We are seeing more birds becoming threatened. We’re not living sustainably. We’re still catching up.”
As urban development continues, the birds’ natural habitats are being destroyed. However, it’s not all bad news. As Katherine Oxenham says, “Redevelopment gives us quite a few opportunities to incorporate habitat features into new developments.”
More importantly, people can do things in their own private spaces. “Even small yards can make a difference,” Holly Parsons says. “They can provide a really important stepping stone in the landscape for birds to move around.”
The most important objective and the thing that will play the biggest role in protecting our birds is education. “In order to contribute meaningfully, you need to build your own awareness,” says resident Stephanie Pillora, a member of the Friends of Sydney Park.
“I live near the park. I walk in the park most days and have done so for the past 10 years. I follow developments in Sydney Park with great interest,” she says, “I remember being part of tree planting in the early days when it was still just a vast empty space. It’s been great to watch the development of that into a really beautiful and diverse public space.”
Dr Major shares a similar view on the role education has to play. “It’s amazing how much people’s attitudes can change when they find out a little bit of information.”
Take, for example, the White Ibis. With their sharp curved beaks that pick through rubbish bins, they are seen as one of the most annoying birds in our city. However, people don’t often realise that they are native to Australia. Or that they have only become urbanised in the last 40 years. Or that they never used to be seen in Sydney. At all. That was, until changing water use in inland NSW began destroying their habitats, forcing them further east.
Sydney City Council is developing an Urban Ecology Strategy which will focus on identifying and prioritising actions that should be taken in order to conserve and enhance biodiversity across the local government area, says Katherine Oxenham.
“This would include things like habitat enhancement, planting understorey species (shrubs, grasses and groundcovers) across parks, providing information on biodiversity- friendly maintenance practices and improving the community’s awareness. The plan will include site specific as well as species specific actions,” she says.
At a Eureka Awards night, held by the Australian Museum, Dr Major talking with one of the prize-winners who said, “I love birds. I live in Glebe and I love my Fairy-wrens.”
“It’s amazing to me how a little bird adds a lot to the quality of people’s lives,” Dr Major says. Sadly, the Superb Fairy-wren is one of the small birds on the decline, despite a Sydney City Council-funded project dedicated to bringing them back to the area.
What can people do in their own backyards to help Fairy-wrens and other small birds flourish? “Putting plants in the ground is a big thing. Small birds need dense shrub cover, preferably native. Where possible, locally native is always a great way to go,” Holly Parsons says. “Getting that structure in the garden is always really important. And that can be done in small spaces.”
Having small shrubs such as White swallow wattle and common hop bushes in your backyard has a direct impact on the birds living in your area but it also creates an indirect effect by increasing the relationship between people and birds.
However, Australia is a very highly urbanised country. Around 85 percent of people live in cities, so it’s hard to expect people to identify with biodiversity and give it some value if they don’t come into contact with it, Richard Major says.
“The place they’re most likely to come into contact with it is in urban environments so I think it’s really important to show people the richness of biodiversity in urban areas,” he says. This could encourage people to be more active in their community, to influence politicians, and to ultimately make changes happen. And it all begins in the backyard.
“We’ve got to try and help out the little struggling guys,” Holly Parsons says. “There’s a real benefit for us, too. Having that connection to the environment gives us a connection to nature which can improve our quality of life and it provides us with a lot of joy. And I don’t think we can underestimate how important that can be for our own piece of mind.”