Lyrebird James’ cabaret hits the road again, for a new audience

A page from Kerin’s book. Jackie Kerin with her new book, Lyrebird! A True Story.

A picture from Ambrose Pratt’s 1932 book.

WITH the spread of suburbia in the 1930s, it was feared that lyrebirds in the Dandenongs were in danger of extinction.

But the antics of an all-singing and dancing creature called James sparked a new public appreciation of the graceful indigenous birds.

A new children’s book, Lyrebird! A True Story, tells the forgotten yarn of how James performed daily on the verandah of Ferny Creek widow Edith Wilkinson.

In 1932, Ambrose Pratt, a journalist at The Age, visited Mrs Wilkinson’s flower farm and described a performance ”of almost unbelievable beauty”.

At first, James repeated back Mrs Wilkinson’s greeting of ”hullo, boy”, then jumped on a platform she had built, Pratt wrote. The bird lifted his 12 tail feathers over his head, then moved his body in time to his trills. He mimicked kookaburra laughs, cats’ miaows, a stone crusher and two men talking.

Pratt wrote that when Mrs Wilkinson was ill, James ”made a mound outside her bedroom window, and there he sang to her daily until she got well”.

His article made the pair celebrities. Tourists flocked to the house, which no longer stands but is believed to have been in Belgrave-Ferny Creek Road.

Five years ago, Melbourne storyteller Jackie Kerin read about James in Pratt’s 1933 book The Lore of the Lyrebird and was moved to teach a new generation about James.

”I tell stories to children, a lot of folk and fairytales, particularly from Europe,” Kerin said. ”And I’m always looking for what I call tellable Australian tales – how Ned Kelly rescued a boy from drowning, and about a gold nugget found in 1857 called the Blanche Barkly.”

She started telling the lyrebird yarn at Melbourne schools and festivals, from Port Fairy to Woodford in Queensland.

Audiences loved it and wanted to know, ”did this really happen?” and ”tell us more” and so she has written the book Lyrebird! A True Story, released through Museum Victoria’s publishing arm and illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe.

There is a glossary of native birds at the end. She hopes the book will create a curiosity in children about exploring nature; too many young people are removed from the environment, she says.

”In some ways I think I’m continuing the work of Ambrose in alerting people to these beautiful birds and to the fact that if you care for wildlife, you have to care for their environment.”

She hopes to learn more about Edith. ”I can’t see how you could possibly be lonely if you are connected to nature as she was. I have never seen anyone who has seen a live lyrebird performance that hasn’t had their breath taken away.”

Video of James dancing can be found at here.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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