One of them specialised in the kookaburra’s call. Another, the diamond dove. Others perfected the whistling kite, wonga pigeon or king parrot. Their mimicry was inspired by a passion for birds. And that passion took them from the bush to the Big Smoke...where they won gold.
It all started thanks to the interest of Merimbula Public School’s former principal Jack Lynch, who initiated Bird Day in Merimbula’s Twyford Hall in 1953.
Children from across the Valley gathered once a year to compete in bird calling. They whistled, warbled and chirruped, and the best of those bird callers were selected to travel to Sydney, to compete in the annual Gould League of Bird Lovers’ championship at the Conservatory of Music.
Incredibly, our little posse of bush kids won the shield six times.
And last Friday November 25, surviving former champions reunited at Merimbula’s Old School Museum to reminisce.
Emceeing was Pambula resident Margaret Liston, who attended Merimbula Public School from 1954 to ‘59.
“The big Sydney schools normally won those competitions, but then this little bush school from Merimbula came and won it, often imitating birds we’d never heard of,” Ms Liston said.
“We won that first year in 1953, and kept competing until 1962.”
Those were years of fond memories for Eden resident Marie McDonald, former pupil with Nethercote Public School.
“I started back in 1954 and I did the competition six years in a row,” Ms McDonald said.
“The Eden Killer Whale Museum has all my trophies.”
Ms McDonald said the competitors in Sydney had to do four to six bird calls each.
“I did the thrush, king parrot and whipbird,” Ms McDonald said.
“I mastered the magpie, and I also did the mopoke. I did that call by folding my hands, and blowing into my hands and moving my fingers. I can’t do the call now because my hands don’t work anymore.”
Pambula resident Gary Beveridge sympathised, no longer able to do his favourite bird calls anymore because of his false teeth, while friend Bruce Chapman said he was best limbering up his vocal chords “with a stubbie in my hand”.
Former MPS pupil Jim Burton said he couldn’t remember all the birds he once did.
“I know it included the whistling eagle, peaceful dove and common bronze-winged pigeon,” Mr Burton said with a laugh, before attempting the peaceful dove call to much ribbing by Mr Chapman.
Kiah sisters Monica and Clare McMahon were attending the one-teacher tiny Kiah school when they were selected to compete in Sydney.
“I went to the 1954 competition,” Clare McMahon said. “I did the king parrot, pallid cuckoo and whistling eagle.”
Sister Monica complimented that line-up with the Lowrie parrot and crimson rosella, and said their prized reference book at home was What Bird is That.
It’s hoped there will be a revival of the bird calling tradition in the Valley, and the older champions were delighted when MPS pupils showed up at the reunion.
The grade three class led by teacher Amanda Brewer was there to support Lola Houston, who has long practiced the call of the yellow-tailed black cockatoo.
“They fly over my house all the time, and I just love calling to them,” Lola told the gathering, before doing a heart-felt rendition of the primordial cockatoo call, which was received with warm applause.
Much to Lola’s delight, Margaret Liston declared that Lola’s performance would have earned her a place in the Gould League of Bird Lovers’ competition of old.
“Everyone there was so thrilled that the tradition of bird calling, and the affinity in the area to birds, is being carried on,” Ms Liston said.
“We were very proud that Merimbula School came along, and we all felt that Lola did so well with her bird calling. I thought she was fantastic.
“It was great to see that of her own accord Lola formed that relationship with birds. She will probably do a lot for the area; she has a real gift.”
Ms Liston said she called Merimbula Public School to let them know about the success of the reunion, and has offered to come into the school to talk more about the history and tradition of bird calling with the hope of inspiring more of the next generation.
In the meantime, the next event of interest to budding bird callers is the Pambula Agricultural Show in January where children and adults can come along and help identify pre-recorded bird calls, and meet other bird callers.