Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Special Collections Fossickings 52: Rescue and Survival (Pied Imperial Pigeon Story, Part 2)

Have you perused the previous part of the pied imperial pigeon posts?

Margaret Thorsborne and John Winter counting pigeons from the beach,
with kind permission of Bryony Barnett
In one of those strange coincidences that history throws up, it was almost exactly 100 years after Governor Bowen had enjoyed his “excellent sport” - shooting pigeons on an island east of Hinchinbrook - that a Gold Coast couple on holiday took their small boat over to the very same island that had attracted the Governor. Here, for the first time they witnessed the homecoming flight of the birds that had been feeding all day in the coastal forest before returning to their nesting colony. The island was North Brook, which shimmers in the waters of the Coral Sea just 30 kilometres off the Cardwell coast and the holiday-makers were Arthur and Margaret Thorsborne, whose lives were to become intimately involved with the pigeon story.
A copy of the DVD can
be found in our collections

The 2015 documentary The Coming of the White Birds (held in the North Queensland and Main collections) tells the story of the North Brook colony and of how the shooting was stopped and the tallies of birds “bagged” in a shoot were replaced by a very different kind of counting.

Two years after their first visit in 1965, the Thorsbornes arrived at the island to find evidence of a far more devastating shoot than anything inflicted by Governor Bowen. With feathers stretching across the water to the shores of Hinchinbrook’s Ramsey Bay it was estimated that over a thousand birds had been slaughtered in one day. Even more dramatically, as they approached the island in December 1968 they were greeted with the sound of gunfire. With considerable composure, they disarmed the three shooters as they emerged onto the beach, later handing the guns over to police.

Rangers counting birds from sea.
Photo courtesy of Liz Downes.
From this point the large-scale shooting quickly declined and a far more worthwhile tradition was set in train. The chief fauna officer of the day, Charlie Roff, had encouraged the Thorsbornes to make regular counts of the birds. Thanks to their efforts, now supported by numerous volunteers, indigenous and marine park rangers, the annual population monitoring of the North Brook colony has become one of the world’s longest wildlife surveys and is now in its 53rd year. From a pitiful total of less than 2000 birds at the height of the shooting, the population had stabilized between thirty and forty thousand birds by the turn of the century.

Many items in the NQ Collection map the history of these birds. In 1870 E.B. Kennedy observed “it is great fun shooting them … they fall with a good thud” (Four Years in Queensland). The police sub-inspector Robert Johnstone’s detailed observations from the 1870s were re-published thirty years later in Spinifex and Wattle. Then came the observations in many of Banfield’s books in the first 20 years of the century until the Thorsbornes themselves devoted a whole chapter to the pigeon story in their book Hinchinbrook Island: The Land Time Forgot (1989).

Today, as the colony slowly recovers from the devastation of cyclone Yasi in 2011, the greatest threat comes from continued loss of habitat whether from human activity or natural disaster. With the birds’ story now also documented on film, The Coming of the White Birds reminds us of the need to remain watchful for their future.

Story by Miniata

Two pied imperial pigeons. Photo courtesy of Yvonne Cunningham.

The coming of the white birds 598.65099436 COM
Thorsborne, A & M. Hinchinbrook Island: the land time forgot 994.36 THO
Kennedy, Edward B. Four years in Queensland 994.303 KEN
Johnstone, Robert A. Spinifex and wattle 919.43042 JOH

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