I have to drive an hour from where I live to buy groceries. I don't mind this, though, because I get to travel through the amazingly beautiful Australian countryside. Past forests and paddocks, rivers and dams. Countryside that has an incredible, changing temperament, and can be different every day.
Photo: Jen Cooper
Last year, I was a passenger on one of these drives, excitedly clutching my brand new DSLR camera. Shooting out the window at anything that caught my eye. A flock of unidentified birds flew overhead, so I instinctively pointed my camera skyward and clicked.
I had no idea what type of birds they were. From my myopic vantage point, they were simply a flock of dark shapes against a blue sky, an interesting natural pattern. Months later, after I had opened my online shop, I revisited this image, which turned out to be a flock of Australian White Ibis.
This is a very long-winded way to introduce my topic, which is, of course, the ibis. A bird colloquially known as the Bin Chicken in Australia.
When I snapped my picture of that flock against the blue sky, I had no idea that the ibis had a small cult following in this country. Not until a shared Facebook post from my niece alerted her “mutant”, Bin Chicken-loving friends to my new IbisSky designs. I was “immortalising them in dresses”, were her words, I think.
Now, it never occurred to me that I was immortalising anything, but when I came across an article on Gizmodo titled 'In Defence of the Bin Chicken', I started to realise the bird's growing iconic status.
If you read Gizmodo's article, you will discover that the unflattering moniker bestowed on these birds is due to their habit of sourcing their dinner from our rubbish bins. Their long narrow beak, once beautifully adapted for sifting wetland mud in search of crustaceans, now makes an excellent tool with which to pierce plastic bags, and dive into their smelly contents, usually spreading said contents across a wide radius. An area which, usually, also quickly becomes quite smelly.
Thus a growing resentment has been born, quickly festering into true hatred in many bird-fearing peoples' hearts. Granted, fighting a losing battle to a bird can be a little soul destroying, even if the bird is quite large, with a somewhat scary-looking, scaly head. Even if it is also known to be a particularly intelligent and cunning member of its genus, such as the ibis.. So it is easy to understand how long-fought wars have cultivated a generally unfavourable view of this once majestic creature.
But the thing is, it’s not their fault. It's ours. Humans have destroyed habitat to the point where the ibis now have nowhere to go. In desperation, they have taken to hanging out with us, where they can at least find enough to eat to, you know, keep themselves alive. It is indeed sad to watch this beautiful bird, reduced to salvaging a life for itself amongst our rubbish.
So, while they are struggling to survive, ibises occasionally inconvenience us humans a bit by making a mess of our carefully wrapped and binned waste. We have therefore, reflexively, decided to despise and deride them, and regularly chase them away with a broom, perhaps yelling at them to 'go back to where they came from'.
That kinda sounds familiar, doesn't it? Think for a minute.
Ibises are refugees! I concede that I have been known to overthink things, but try and stay with me here.
They are fleeing environments that can no longer support life for them (because those environments have been forever altered, by various groups of humans) and are seeking refuge with communities that have the resources to help them survive (ie. different humans). Is that irony?
Does it also indicate the human attitude towards those trying to survive, perhaps necessarily at the expense of the quality of life of a different group? Do we immediately hate on anything that might threaten the status quo, even if we are only talking about forcing us to more closely consider our domestic waste handling?
Perhaps the rise of the ibis as an Aussie icon speaks to another of our impulses, though. Maybe it illustrates how an encouragingly large portion of us are quick to jump to the defence of those that we perceive as being unfairly persecuted. Does the fact that the ibis has a growing cult-following show that we are learning to look beyond the pictures, to the stories behind the stories?
These are big questions. Questions I have no answers for. But questions that are interesting to consider, nonetheless. Challenging our perceptions at every turn, trying to understand why things appear they way they do, is an arcane and neglected skill. But it’s a skill that I think is increasingly crucial in today's world, no matter where you look.
And that particular chain of thoughts is, for me, how the story of the Bin Chicken became an allegory for people fleeing incredible suffering at the hands of other people. It is important to stress here that I am not trivialising anything about these people. The unimaginable struggle for mere survival that refugees experience is one that I have, thankfully, never had to know. But the broad picture of dispossessed creatures, seeking refuge amongst the very people who's actions dislocated them in the first place, and the response of those people to the obvious suffering before them, are such common themes these days; and the similarity between the plight of these two disparate groups - displaced birds and displaced humans - seemed so bizarre that I was compelled to share it.
Photos: https://www.sunshinecoastdaily.com.au/news/why-tip-turkeys-deserve-a-break/2749896/ and http://www.irinnews.org/news/2009/01/13/scavenging-food-rubbish-tips
Metaphors are important tools that we use to process and make sense of the world we see around us. Considering things in unique ways can shake up our conditioning a bit, and maybe dislodge a preconceived notion or two, so we can unpack them and study them more closely.
And who knows, this Bin Chicken metaphor could be just the one that triggers a response in maybe just one person. It is possible this, admittedly odd, idea could compel someone to reconsider and challenge their perceptions; maybe even leading to a tiny victory for human compassion and understanding.
Maybe. (I know - again with the overthinking - but hang in there, we are nearly done, and there could be a point in here somewhere.)
If you really think about things, really consider all of the angles, anything is possible - really. If you allow your mind to meander through the connections it makes naturally, without judgement, and watch for patterns and themes that arise, it is incredible what can happen. Just like this article started out being about Bin Chickens, and turned out being about refugees, and the way we view those less geographically blessed than ourselves - if you think long enough and laterally enough, you never know what you might discover – about the world and about yourself.
You just need to point yourself in a direction and click.