A WORLD OF HIS OWN
John Crowhurst: the bird ambassador
The word went out some years ago: Crowhurst’s dead!
But just as the London press of 1897 ‘exaggerated’ the death of Mark Twain, so it is with John Crowhurst, OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia).
The man known to scores of local and international birdwatchers as the ‘bird ambassador’ of the Cairns Esplanade is definitely still with us.
In fact, he will soon (27 February) celebrate his 80th birthday. Albeit, John is now a resident at the Regis Nursing Home in Cairns where he is battling health and mobility issues.
When Natural Images interviewed him a while back he was still in his own unit, but just out of hospital and heavily reliant on his good birding buddy Andy Anderson. (That relationship continues.)
“They think I’m dead, you know,” John said while shuffling slowly around his book-lined front room on a walking frame – rather poignantly, wearing his ‘Stop Extinction’ t-shirt.
The ‘they’ were some of the many tourists and visiting birders with whom he corresponded over a lot of years. “I was a bird guide and also wrote regularly to people about the birds. Then the correspondence dried up and I learned that many of them thought I was a gonner.”
John’s exposure to the birding fraternity was at its peak when he was the Cairns council’s head gardener responsible for the Esplanade – then regarded as one of the best locations anywhere in the world to easily observe migrating wading birds at close quarters.
“I was given a lot of time by the council to help people interested in the birds. As soon as I saw somebody with binoculars I would approach them and see if I could help,” he recalled with obvious fondness.
“Rather than a gardener, I became a sort of birding ambassador. It started out at two hours a day but eventually I was fulltime helping people with the birds.”
A hidden phobia
Sadly, the ambassadorial role was not to last. John had a phobia that he didn’t know existed until in his early 60s, when a big cyclone began forming offshore from Cairns.
The news terrified him and so he took to his bed. When he woke the next day he was ‘paralised’. “I just froze with fear and literally couldn’t get out of bed. I suffered a complete nervous collapse and eventually went down to Sydney for a year to recover.”
Consequently, he took early retirement and from that point immersed himself in his growing collection of bird and natural history reference books – hundreds of them.
Peace of mind
“Most of his 1200 books are now with him in his room at the nursing home,” says Andy Anderson. “That stabilises and protects his peace of mind, although one of his Parkinson’s medications caused him severe paranoia for a while.”
To stop him worrying about his beloved books being stolen, the most valuable ones were stored by Andy until the medication was changed and the paranoia subsided.
The comprehensiveness of John’s collection is illustrated by an experience from Andy’s days as a professional bird guide. “A Florida-based client wanted me to show her the birds of Siberia. I was in Boston at the time and went to the public library to get two well-known books about Russian birds, but they didn’t have them.
“That library [the Boston Public Library includes 250,000 rare books and a million manuscripts] is three storeys and each one is almost half a block.
“But I knew there was an alternative – John will have them in Cairns! And he did – both of them!”
Crowhurst says he acquired most of his wildlife knowledge from reading books and magazines. “I don’t have a computer and don’t really even know how to turn on the television.”
When we spoke to him, he was hoping to be back on his feet so he could go bird watching and refresh his mind about their calls. “I used to be good at that – if you don’t know the calls you can’t be a good birder – but my skills aren’t what they used to be.”
‘My world is my library’
Did you travel a lot? “I went to PNG three times but that’s about it… My world is my library. Grab a book and I’m there. I have a good imagination and that helps. When I am surrounded by my books or I’m working on a journal, I am literally in a world of my own.”
Frail now and with a patchy memory, Crowhurst thinks his bird knowledge (legendary in some circles) is much more from reading than watching. “As a birder I didn’t consider himself even good. But I knew a lot of the birds and became a professional guide for a while.”
Although rarely seen in public these days, John Crowhurst is certainly not forgotten by local and overseas birders. Meet one of a certain age who has been to Cairns and chances are they will ask if you know the tall, raw-boned man called John ‘something’.
(Footnote: John Crowhurst wanted to donate his collection of books and journals (big green ledger books of carefully placed magazine articles and news items) to the library at the Cairns Botanical Gardens. But they apparently declined.)
Story and pictures: ©Tony Neilson