Blood feud in the dawn redwood

male-koel-neck-arched-square

Every year for the last seven years, I’ve heard koels calling, loudly and desperately, right outside my window, day and night, for the three months from the equinox to Christmas.  And for the whole of that time I’ve been trying to get a decent photograph.  A while back, I caught sight of a whopping great juvenile sitting around on a branch of the pine tree, whining for more food from his adoptive mum, a harassed looking red wattlebird. But that’s it.

I know they’re there, skulking in the trees, the males advertising their availability in an increasingly high pitched, eventually hysterical squeak from the cover of the leaves.  And there’s that duet that koel couples, both equally well concealed and well amplified, produce – the male exclaiming “wurru-wurru!” while the female interrupts with a simultaneous “keek keek keek!”.  But where are these potentially ear damaging exchanges coming from?  Who can say.  It’s like trying to locate a pair of shy and slightly drunk ventriloquists.

But that all changed in my backyard yesterday.  I’ve finally got my stash of koel shots.

Why did these cryptic birds let me get close enough to take a million pictures?  I reckon it was because there was a battle on in the branches.   The prospect of scoring, through combat, a romantic enounter with the iridescent, satan-eyed male seem to make the feuding females oblivious to all that clicking and crashing in the undergrowth.

The  sexual proclivities of koels are not well understood (by humans anyway.  You hope koels have a decent grip on it).  Brood parasites are inherently interesting critters, so koels’ interactions with the honeyeater “hosts”, whose nests they visit to lay their eggs, has been studied exhaustively. The changes in their migrating habits as the world warms up have been looked into a bit as well (eg Chambers et al 2014).  But how and with whom they do their coupling is all a bit of a mystery.

You can’t give the ornithologists too much grief about this.  Even the most avid twitcher is going to be a bit dubious about spending the three years of a PhD shinning up trees clinging to a GPS tracking device, in an attempt to pin down the sexual encounters of an intercontinental migrant of no fixed abode.  And that’s not even considering the koel’s antisocial habits: the fact that they are “typically wary and difficult to observe [remaining] in thick foliage, high in trees, calling from concealed positions” (Healy and Healey 2007).

female-koel-peeking-around-leaves-crop

So what did I see (or half see) in our metasequoia tree after breakfast yesterday?

Did I witness a female, already partnered however temporarily with Mr Shiny Feathers, being challenged by a youngblood for access to a mate?  Koel males are apparently “polygynous” – they mate with multiple females.  But those ventriloquist duets suggest some kind of short-term liaisons, since couples that sing together like this, apparently, often have some kind of ongoing arrangement (Maller and Jones, 2001).

Or just two females both keen to hook up with guy who had command of such a fine calling station, my beautiful dawn redwood?

 

The male was staying well out of it, watching cagily from the side lines.  At one point I spotted him passing somethinga nuptial gift of a berry? – to one of the warring females.  I didn’t see if him get anything in return, unlike the lucky Asian koel spotted by this Singapore based bird watcher. But then with bird couplings, blink and you could easily miss it.

koel-eating-a-seed-crop-for-amend

Female koel… with nuptial gift?

 

But if the male bird was playing favours, this was strictly a chick fight.

At first it was a rap battle.

Eventually the two females settled at opposites ends of a branch, studiously ignoring each other, like gunfighters in a Western pacing the far ends of Main Street.  And then it was on, with a flurry of feathers and a fanning of tails.

two-koel-on-branch-flipped-and-cropped

Two female koels about to tussle

 

Such chick fights aren’t as unusual as old-fashioned zoologists might think. Females that live in groups, it seems, often engage in “intense female-female competition over reproduction, dominance rank and other components of social-living” (Rubenstein, 2012, 2250). I’ve seen it with the chickens.  According to the implausibly named Clutton-Brock and Huchard, in a recent article for the Royal Society these fights “peak… during the reproductive season [8183], and … can lead to wounding or death [28,84].”  And fights are not just about access to mates, but about protecting eggs or nesting sites, space or foraging territories (Tobias et al, 2012; Krieg 2016).

Intriguingly, competition between females seems to go along with good looks or “ornamentation”.  Or better still “ornamentation and weaponry”.  And female koels, while not obviously armed to the teeth, surely are beautiful birds; like most ornamental or colourful females both substantial in size and hailing from the tropics (Dale et al 2015).

sideish-female-koel-with-good-view-of-stain-include-square

Hang on, what is that mysterious red stain on that creamy chest?  Was this a battle involving “wounding or even death”?  Was I witnessing an injured female being challenged, in her moment of weakness, by a healthier rival?

In some of my photos it surely looks like it.

Is that a blood stained beak?  Was this a ghoulish outcome of a predator attack followed by a desperate battle for genetic survival?

female-koel-with-red-beak-squareOr is it just mulberry season?

References

Chambers, L E, Beaumont LJ, Hudson IL (2014) “Continental scale analysis of bird migration timing: influences of climate and life history traits” International Journal of Biometeorology 58 (6) 1147-62

Dale, J., Dey, C, Delhey, K, Kempenaers, B, Valcu, M. (2015) “The effects of life history and sexual selection on male and female plumage coloration” Nature Vol 527 pp.367-71

Healy, C and Healey, E (2007) “Diet and Roost-site Fidelity in the Common Koel
Eudynamys scolopacea in Suburban Darwin” Australian Field Ornithology 2007, 24, 184–186

Maller, C J and Jones, D N (2001)”Vocal behaviour of the Common Koel, Eudynamys scolopacea, and implications for mating systems” Emu, 2001, 101, 105–112

Rubenstein, D.R. (2012) “Sexual and social competition: broadening perspectives by defining female roles”  Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol 367 No 1600, 2274-2293

Tobias, J. et al (2012) “The evolution of female ornaments and weaponry: social selection, sexual selection and ecological competition” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol 367 No 1600, 2274-2293

Krieg, CA, Getty, T. (2016) “Not just for males: females use song against male and female rivls in a temperate zone songbird” Animal Behaviour Vol 113 39-47

 

R2D2 in black and white

I’ve been spending a lot of time with magpies lately.  “Model magpies” as my nine year old aptly described these two who spent the day  posing in the Japanese maple and prancing around the back deck.  Oddly enough, the companionship steps up in intensity whenever I stop typing for a snack.

This gang of youngbloods don’t spend all their time begging for food and doing catalogue shoots, though.  There’s also the occasional training session for the Olympic synchronised vogueing competition.

And, of course, plenty of carolling.  The juveniles spent a lot of time last week singing for their supper, until one of the grown-ups got jack of the whole thing and flew down to show them how it was done.

But not before the youngsters did their party trick.  In amongst all the mellifluous warbling, my ear caught some distinct moments of robotic squeaking and clacking. The magpies were doing a bowerbird impression.

Apparently Australian birds are uncommonly good at mimicry.  Lyrebirds are famous for it, but all sorts of implausible suspects have a line in impressions as well: magpies, mistletoe birds, silver eyes. Apparently the minute brown thornbill has been recorded mimicking a pied currawong – a bird forty times its size.

Why do birds mimics the songs of others?  Pretending to be something bigger and tougher for self defense purposes seems to be one motive.  Bowerbirds have been observed doing raven impressions while being mobbed by a colony of those rather nasty bell-miners, for instance.

Another seems to be showing off to make yourself look good to potential mates.  Researchers have found that male bowerbirds that can only manage a one or two rubbish impressions (singing “like a kookaburra with bronchitis”, as the researcher cruelly remarked) have less mating success than those who can effortlessly produce a good five.

The most hilarious explanation I’ve read for bird mimicry is to chill out sexual partners.  Researchers reckon that R2D2 style squeaks and clicks that satin bowerbirds make while courting can freak out their mates:

“by interspersing melodic mimetic laughing kookaburra and Lewin’s honeyeater calls between episodes of harsh mechanical calls, males may calm females and improve the likelihood of that females will stay for additional courtship and copulation” (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015)

The idea that a sudden explosion of kookaburra calls would mellow you out and get you in the mood gives me a good picture of why certain male bowerbirds (and possibly particular male ornithologists) might be unlucky in love.

While not as famous as lyrebirds, bowerbirds do some pretty amazing impressions, not just of individual sounds but of whole acoustic scenes.  How’s this, observed from a toothed bowerbird?

A male started with the sounds of a group of people talking as they moved through the forest with their machetes cutting bushes and dogs barking, and continued with the sounds of machetes being used to fell a tree, complete with the rattle of shaking leaves after each blow and eventually the sound of the tree falling and hitting the ground with a crash (Borgia and Keaghy, 2015, 97)

The humble magpie doesn’t do badly either.  They’ve been recorded copying 21 different species of bird, as well as the sound of horses, dogs, cats and humans.  Magpies, it appears, only imitate critters that share their territory, not just the blow-ins and passers by, so it makes sense that our youngsters copy the satin bowerbirds that seem so spend much of the year in the garden, eviscerating my beans and kiwifruit vines and making free with my broken pegs.

I’ve got a whole new agenda in the backyard now.  There’s those in-flagrante males doing kookaburra impressions to listen out for.  As yet, I haven’t found any references to magpie calls appearing in the satin bowerbird repertoire.  Maybe this will be my contribution to science.  Better still, maybe I’ll catch a bowerbird in the act of ripping off a magpie doing a remix of another bowerbird.  Or the other way round.

Additional references

Borgia, G. and Keaghy, J. (2015) “Cognitively driven cooption and the evolution of sexual displays in bowerbirds”in Irschick, D., Briffa, M and Podos, J. (eds) Animal Signalling and Function: an integrative approach, Wiley Blackwell

Kaplan, Gisela (2015) Bird Minds, CSIRO Publishing

 

Thinking like a bird

One of the things I love about my regular walk to the the train station is the chance to check out the critters’ daily routines while I’m in the midst of mine.  I’m an everyday intruder, just passing through.  Through the carpark behind the panel beaters’ shed where the glossy black cockatoos do their acrobatics.   Over the slimy patch on the footpath that used to lure eastern waterdragons out to play chicken in the traffic (I stress “used to”. Sad face). Past the carefully tended brush turkey mound in the scrub by the library and round the the blind corner where butcherbirds find their roadkill.  So far I’ve never seen them pecking at the flattened remains of kids on skateboards but I worry.

I was trudging home a few months ago, when there was a kerfuffle in the shrubbery that even the most self-absorbed commuter couldn’t ignore. An aggravated bird was repeatedly hurling herself at an invisible enemy, and making a tremendous din.  I spotted a tail sliding behind the trunk of a halfway up a tree – was it a goanna? a snake?  No, a brush-tailed possum, having a late afternoon snack in a grey butcherbird’s nest. Mum was willing to fight for her eggs to her last breath.  I don’t have any pictures of the stramash, unfortunately, despite roaming around Berowra most days like some bumbling stalker, a chunky camera swinging around my neck.

However, I feel a bit less sheepish about my amateur-hour suburban birdwatching – and a little less clueless about butcherbirds – after  reading Gisela Kaplan’s fascinating book Bird Minds (CSIRO, 2015) this week.

Butcherbird in near silhouette crop

Grey butcherbird makes a rare appearance in the backyard

Bird Minds considers most aspects of avian cognition – social learning, mimicry, tool use, play, abstract thought and emotion  – with a particular focus on the locals.  This, as Kaplan points out, is no mean feat.  Aussie natives are under-discussed in the world of scholarly ornithology, it seems.  She tells (with secret delight, I reckon) how the international community were forced to reluctantly accept that songbirds evolved in the part of Gondwanaland that came to be Australia, overturning 200 years of northern hemisphere prejudice.  The oldest songbird fossil ever found came from here, and recently the discovery of heron footprints from the Cretaceous Era in southern Victoria showed that birds and those other, non-avian dinosaurs cohabited this part of the world, at least, for millions of years.

So, as well as summarising the work of researchers from around the globe, to fill the gap in the published research on Australian natives, Kaplan draws on anecdotes from bird watchers (like the amazing tales of fire-starting black kites that have done the rounds in the papers lately) and her own experience of studying, observing and hand-rearing birds over the decades.  My particular favourite is her story of the adopted 75 year old galah who liked to summon all four household dogs by name in a passable impression of Kaplan’s voice just for the fun of bossing them around.  Every week.  It’s this kind of jolly jape that keeps a bird young.

Galahs in the rain crop

Pair of galahs

Butcherbirds are just the type of birds that Kaplan is interested in, although her own research for the last 25 years has been on another member of the Artamidae family, the Australian magpie.  Currawongs, butcherbirds and magpies, like many other Australian natives, don’t fit a northern hemisphere perspective on avian lives.  Grey butcherbirds are wonderful mellifluous singers, for example (though their tunes are less feted than the improvisational outpourings of the pied butcherbird).  But their carolling doesn’t fit the familiar songbird story.

Kaplan points out, for instance, that while northern hemisphere songbirds are most vocal during the breeding season, the Australian bush is often quietest at that time.  Amongst the much studied birds of high latitudes, males sing as part of a courting display.  In comparison, she observes, “Australian species often seem rather ‘egalitarian’ “.  For many Aussie birds, including butcherbirds “there is often no difference in the song between male and female, no marked difference in plumage or size, brooding and feeding of youngsters and defence” (Kaplan 2015 114).  I have to confess, this whole line of argument really appeals to me.

Magpie with fluff horizontal smaller

Magpie in spring

I also get sneaky pleasure at Kaplan’s observations about the cleverness of Australian birds.  Smarts, she suggests, are one strategy for coping with harsh environments and unreliable climatic conditions.  The humble budgie, a desert dweller, for instance, has one of the largest bird brains for its size, along with Cape York’s palm cockatoo, a formidable tool user.  These clever cockies select, shape and stash particularly excellent sticks, some to use as percussion instruments and others to improve nest-hole drainage.  Behavioural flexibility is a sign of sophisticated thinking: I guess musician cum plumber fits that bill quite nicely.  Birds like this, Kaplan thinks, playful, inquisitive and social, fill the ecological niche of monkeys in an Antipodean environment.

Australian birds often live much longer lives than their northern hemisphere equivalents. Permanent pair bonding means that galahs, for instance, or sulphur crested cockatoos may end up in a 60 year partnership.  Kaplan suggests that these long-term pairings require social nous and a sophisticated communication repertoire.  Forget relationship counselling, it could be time to take advice from the local cockies!

Young Australian birds are also likely to spend a long time hanging around with their parents learning the ropes – an extra year for grey butcherbirds, as much as four for white-winged choughs. Which explains the whiny teenagers I’ve been hearing everywhere lately.

It’s hilarious watching great hulking juvenile wattlebirds, indistinguishable from adults to my untrained eye, sitting in the Japanese maple tree out back, calling plaintively and endlessly for parental attention until someone hops up and gives them a lerp.  And last week on the way home, as I passed Butcherbird Corner, I heard the sounds of a youngster calling out that all-too-familiar refrain: “Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum!”.  It drives me mad when my kids do it, but on this occasion, pester-power put a smile on my face.  The lumbering youngster was a survivor of the Possum Bloodbath of 2015, demanding quality time (and a take-away) from its weary parent.

The youngbloods may hang around with mum and dad for ages, but they do get off the couch and help with the housework.  Raising your chicks with the help of older siblings and even unrelated adults – “cooperative breeding” – is surprisingly common in Australia, in comparison to elsewhere. If refraining from tearing your life-partner limb from limb with your own beak during the course of 60 years together is a challenge to a bird’s emotional control, how much more so is long-term living with the extended family?

This is an idea that Kaplan toys with throughout the book – that “negotiated living” might  “require… changes in powers of perception: a watchful eye, powers of observation and careful scrutiny of others… watching others means awareness of others and such habits can change from behaviour reading into mind reading” (Kaplan 2015 122).  Complex social lives go along with complex minds.

I rather enjoyed the sly dig at northern hemisphere birds (they sound nice, but could well be dim) that runs alongside Kaplan’s argument for the evolutionary value of cooperation.

in the competitive mode, learning (in males) is for a well-rehearsed performance: an Eistedfodd of dance or song. In the cooperative model, learning is for communication (Kaplan 2015 119)

Old leftie that I am, I can’t help liking the idea that cooperation, “egalitarianism” of the sexes and general smarts go along together.

Long beaked corellas giving me a funny look long.jpg

Long billed corellas giving me a funny look

I can’t vouch for the rigor of Kaplan’s science, but I loved reading her stories of the cleverness of Australian birds – their “versatility, resourcefulness, complex social and individual problem solving abilities” (Kaplan, 2015, 193).  Reading Bird Minds has given me plenty to look out for as I make my workaday way through the suburban territory we share.

Nine herons hunting

Nine herons hunting… could it be the beginning of a carol for Christmas-in-July?  Not a bad sound track, perhaps, for a paddle on a wintry 25th down Mooney Mooney Creek.

There were (roundabout) eight cormorants, some of them cacking….

… three posing pelicans

… two eagles soaring

And a kingfisher in a mangrove tree (no photo, naturally).

But realistically, I could only get all the way through the twelve days of anti-Christmas by including the many invisible mud-loving animals that all those herons were stalking.  And I’m not quite sure if I have the alliterative and euphonious verbs to use for them.  Twelve isopods…. idling? Eleven worms a-wobbling? Ten crustaceans crawling?

Even if it can’t offer swans a-swimming or geese a-laying, Mooney Mooney does pretty well for both visible and invisible animals, considering how damn noisy it is.

I first started dreaming about paddling this creek as we swooped above it, across the lofty freeway bridge.  It’s a gorgeous structure, if you are partial to well-formed concrete: elegantly curved, arching vertiginously above the treetops of Brisbane Water National Park.  An endless stream of cars and semis cross the valley on the F1, the main route north from Sydney, on the tallest road bridge in Australia, the still water 75 metres below.

The Pacific Highway, looping its way down to its own modest crossing point, has plenty of traffic too: bikers switchbacking their way up the old road. This Saturday, I didn’t see a soul in three hours on the river, but for a mile or more I could hear the hiss of compression brakes and the revving of engines.

And yet, if I had to pick a place, of all the waterways I’ve paddled so far, to find and fail to take a picture of a kingfisher, this rowdy river is the one I’d choose.  The traffic noise seems to keep the humans at bay, but not the herons.  What’s going on with the wildlife around here?

There’s plenty of evidence that traffic noise bothers birds.  I particularly like a recent experiment where researchers planted speakers in a long line to create a phantom road.  That’s just what the freeway feels like from Mooney Mooney Creek – a road you can hear all over but mostly can’t quite see.  The phantom road, with its invisible traffic masking mating and alarm calls and the sound of approaching predators, cut numbers by a quarter, and drove two species away from the area entirely.

Some cope better than others.  High pitched songs are less likely to be blocked out by the roar of traffic, and so squeaky voiced birds are more likely to hang around in noisy places.  Species with a little vocal versatility often start to sing a bit higher, a little slower or in purer tones, just to be heard.

If you’re carnivorous, being able to hear the critters scuttling around in the bushes is a boon. Seeds and nectar are less likely to make a break for it, so background noise seems to be less of a big deal for the plant-eaters.  Also, birds that feed on the ground seem to mind the noise less – perhaps there’s more obstacles between them and the din.

Everyone agrees that in loud places, birds spend more time on the alert for predators – a high maintenance lifestyle.  That said, some nest-robbers are also put off by the rumble of traffic, so for some species, chicks hatching in noisy nests have a better chance of survival.  If you can handle the decibels, you may have a competitive advantage.

What does all this tell me about the plentiful birdlife of Mooney Mooney Creek?  Thinking about it, I saw high-pitched squeakers, mud-hugging stalkers and sharp-eyed hunters (see, I’m getting into the swing of this avian carol singing thing!)  I’m guessing striated herons don’t echolocate for crabs.  This white-faced pair were happy to ignore not just the distant thunder of trucks but the much more immediate annoyance of a nosy canoeist with a camera.

“The mud is like a Christmas tree”, my eight year old said, hearing the story of my low-tide adventures, “and the bird were excited to find all their presents”.

When the eating is this good, it seems, the soundtrack scarcely matters.

References

Francis, C.D. (2015) “Vocal traits and diet explain avian sensitivity to anthropogenic noise” Global Change Biology 21(5), 1809-1820

Francis, CD and Jesse R Barber (2013). A framework for understanding noise impacts on wildlife: an urgent conservation priority. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 305–313. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/120183

Francis, CD, Ortega, C and Cruz, A. (2009) “Noise Pollution changes avian communities and species interactions” (2009) Current Biology 19(16) pp.1415-19

Patricelli, Gail L. and Jessica L. Blickley (2006) “Avian communication in urban noise: causes and consequences of vocal adjustment” from The Auk 123(3): 639-49

The secret lives of big bold bug-eating birds

In my fantasy life, my garden is filled with the delicate calls of rare and tiny birds that feed exclusively on cabbage white butterflies, flies and mosquito larvae, and pause in their labours only occasionally (at times of the day with particularly flattering light) to perch photogenically directly opposite my back deck.

My real backyard, however, like the rest of Australian suburbia, is awash with great big, loud, gallus beasties: cockatoos, kookaburras, magpies and of course the damned brush turkeys.  Seems like there’s more of them here in Sydney than ever before.

They may be common as muck, these big bold birds, but they’re not to be sneered at.  They have their own mysteries.  How do breeding magpies meet and pair off?  Why are kookaburras so faithful to their mates? How do cockatoos select whose timber house they’re going to rip to shreds?

To be fair, if the bird-life in suburbia is fairly predictable, bird watchers are pretty bog-standard as well.  I love this comment, in an article marvelling at the speed with which bird atlases are compiled, while more unglamorous animals – favoured by God, perhaps, but not necessarily by citizen scientists – live and die in obscurity.

“Ornithology… was a totally useless subject, the amateur’s field par excellence, largely ignored by even non-utilitarian academics.  No one entered it expecting to be given money and no one, for sure, had ever emerged with any.  Yet… it was here that organised natural history was to accomplish its greatest feats…. its secret lay in numbers.  Birds had a breadth of appeal that no other branch of natural history could rival” (Allen, cited in Adam, 2010, 11)

I’m cultivating LBB habitat and an interest in beetles.  In the meantime, there’s still the challenge of trying to figure out what the “obvious fauna” (Wilks, 2010, 288) are up to in my backyard.

For instance, what’s going on here?

Was there was a stash of sausages in this hollow in the pine tree to put that big smile on this kookaburra’s dial?   If so, they must have been those tiny party saveloys since she kept coming back for more.

Actually, kookaburras don’t subsist entirely on barbecue left-overs or snakes.  Insects make up a big part of their diet, and like magpies, they normally find food on the ground, dropping onto prey from a perch above so they don’t have to do any aerial acrobatics toting that great big kingfisher beak.

Given that birds usually feed in the leaf-litter, or in the sky, or in the canopy – they don’t usually mix it up – I’m not 100% sure this was actually snacking.  Like cockies and magpies, kookaburras are have stable, even “traditional”, territories guarded by the same breeding pair for years and years (Legge, 2010, 48).  And cackling away together isn’t the only way that kookaburra clans – pair-bonded breeding couples and their older offspring “helpers” – mark out their turf.  They also stake their claim with some mid-air show-offery.

Sarah Legge describes one such bit of border policing, a “bellyflop display”: “a single bird flies from a perch to another tree 5-20 metres away in a graceful swoop that ends with a flared landing on the lip of a hollow.  It pauses there momentarily, then swoops back to its original perch”.

Sounds pretty familiar, though I didn’t see a rival posse of bellyfloppers in action today.  Maybe my kookaburra was getting in shape for a big flopping battle down the track.   Or maybe she was really was scarfing saveloys…?  Without photographic evidence, who can say…?

Another of this week’s mysteries: what makes this poor benighted tree the most delicious in the neighbourhood?

After our recent visits by black cockatoos, I wondered if that this scarified specimen might be host to  wood boring larvae that are said to appeal to the yellowtail palate.  I’ve come to suspect that proper ornithologists share the bird watching punter’s lack of interest in bugs, since descriptions of cockatoos’ preferences are ubiquitously vague –  the sites I’ve consulted all comment tersely that yellowtails like “some insects”.  Thanks for the detail, guys.

Mind you, maybe this vagueness is a result of the fact we’re all so “meh” about bugs we can’t even be bothered giving them names.  David Wilks notes, for instance, that a survey of just four types of eucalypts in Western Australia recently identified more than two thousand species, most of them unknown (Wilkes, 2010, 288). I reckon we’re well overdue for a PR campaign to sell us on cute, quirky and cuddly bugs. And there is one!  Manu Saunders is trying to spark up a month long celebration of “Arthropod April” … though thinking about it, we may need “Arthropod August” as well…

If I couldn’t identify the mystery larvae, I had no trouble working out the true culprit in The Mystery of the Tortured Tree:

Is this sulphur crested cockie digging out one of those 2,000 species of unnamed critters?  Does the bark of this specimen have a particularly good mouth-feel, that buttery consistency that just says “bite me“?  Or is this just the local flock‘s agreed upon spot to hang out and have a beak manicure?

Okay, there’s no bird identification challenge here, but I reckon there’s still plenty of secrets to be told in big boofy bird psychology.

References

Adam, Paul (2010) “The study of natural history – a PPP” from Daniel Lunney, Pat Hutchings and Dieter Hochuli (eds) The Natural History of Sydney, Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales

Kaplan, Gisela T. (2004) The Australian Magpie: the biology and behaviour of an unusual songbird, CSIRO Publishing

Legge, Sarah (2004) Kookaburra: King of the Bush, CSIRO Publishing

Recher, Harry F. (2010) “A not so natural history: the vertebrate fauna of Sydney” from Daniel Lunney, Pat Hutchings and Dieter Hochuli (eds) The Natural History of Sydney, Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales

Wilks, David (2010) “A hotbed of biodiversity? A natural history of the Ku-ring-gai council area” from Daniel Lunney, Pat Hutchings and Dieter Hochuli (eds) The Natural History of Sydney, Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales

Of snakes and snakebeans

This sight out the window as I stumbled into the kitchen for the first cup of tea of a Monday morning made the caffeine hit mostly redundant.   Snakey the diamond python’s back in town.

Last time we saw her was early spring a year ago. I looked up from the computer, wondering about the din the little wattlebirds were making, and there she was, stretching up for a sunny rooftop.

I’m worried about the timing of Snakey’s visit.  After a good five years of prevaricating, we finally decided to use rat poison near the house. You can predict and even understand when the vermin demolish your nearly ripe corn-on-the-cob – it’s almost obligatory for your quasi-rural pest population.  But when they won’t leave your broccolini alone it’s all gone too far.

Leaving the house on a late-night mid-winter drive, I saw a tawny frogmouth flash out of the dark.  Another evening a surprised visitor landed on the balustrade of the back deck, only to realise three humans, stock still with beers half-raised to their lips, were unexpected keeping the rodents away.  And we’ve seen Snakey wait, poised for hours, then suddenly strike a rat on a twilight mission for chookhouse grain.  A glorious sight.  But pythons might only eat one a fortnight – it’s that low energy lifestyle.  Sadly there’s no sign of such dietary modesty in the case of the sweet potato munching rattus rattus.

We tried humane traps too.  But what do you do with the terrified beasts, usually the littler, stupider ones, after their night in a cage?  Counsel them?  Release them in the nearest industrial estate?  Figure out some new, psychologically gruelling way of killing them, all the while deluding yourself that it might be somehow be painless?

So not so long ago we reluctantly, guiltily, laid down baits in inaccessible places and endured our penance, the smell of death.

So over my cup of Earl Grey, I anxiously inspected Snakey’s features for signs of toxicity.  She’d chosen her spot judiciously, beside our neighbour’s chicken shed and right above the rat run down to ours.   She looked torpid: had she taken a poisoned rat, one dying slowly and easier to catch than the others?  Wasn’t her jaw somehow slack and asymmetrical, her pose ungainly…?  All I can say is, don’t try phrenology or poker with snakes.  They are danged hard to read.

By the time I got home from work she was gone.  I must confess, in the subsequent days, I have become slightly more cautious with my footing as I head down to peg the washing on the line.

Snakey seems to have brought the subtropical summer with its run-to-the-washing-line storms.  I was that nervous commuter, glancing up at the looming alien mother-ship and hoping I’d get home before all hell broke loose.  Then, same thing, same time, next day. And the next. A regular 4 o’clock Apocalyse.

It’s like the Nile River Delta out back.  As you can see from the flood-art-installation above, every item a child or lazy BBQ tender has carelessly discarded in the backyard now has its own rich pile of alluvium.

The subtropical plants are glowing.  The tumeric has reappeared in the understory as just suddenly as the snake has in the vines.  It dies right down over the winter, and come early December, just when you think it’s a goner, the leaves start nudging through the soil.  Given my dodgy record with propagation, I’m specially pleased to see the this year’s young ‘uns.  Instead of wimping out and buying plants from the ever reliable Daleys, I buried some fresh rhizomes from my weekly organic veggie box and crossed my fingers.

Inspired the marvellous Sri Lankan cooking of my clever sister in law and her mum, I’m trying to grow the ingredients for my favourite mid-week meal of 2014, snake bean curry.  I probably don’t have the stamina to harvest and process my own tumeric powder, but thanks to the big rain, the “Red Dragon” yard long beans are leaping out of the ground, and my baby curry leaf plant – in a pot near the house where I can nip off its weedy berries and quash any suckers – seems to be doing well so far, despite attentions from a nearby lebanese cucumber.  Now, if only I could keep my coriander from bolting for more than 15 minutes I’d be ready to hit the kitchen.  With luck, I’ll still be under the steady supervising eye of Snakey.

Sulphurous romance

While hanging out the washing today, I witnessed a moment of cockatoo romance: a touching break-up-and-make-up scene.

A gang of sulphur crested cockies was chilling in our neighbour’s backyard jungle, napping, preening and crunching the odd stick.  I watched for some minutes (rather pruriently, I admit, but I had the excuse of avoiding housework) as a couple engaged in some heavy-duty necking.  Chewing the feathers around each others’ eyes:  it doesn’t get more intimate than that.  Then it all went wrong – there was a sudden squawk, a bout of wrestling and irritable pecking, and one took off to sulk in a nearby tree.

The remaining bird released a bit of tension by ripping off some chunks of bark and partially eviscerating a few palm fronds.  Then after about quarter of an hour (there was more than one load of washing), the huffy one came back.  He (I’ll say he, for no reason in particular) initially flapped over to the far end of the branch.  With an air of studied nonchalance, by turns looking diffidently about and intently examining his perch, he inched slowly towards his flame. It all ended up in some rather sultry ear whispering and gnawing.  Most satisfactory.

I know sulphur crested cockatoos are so common that many people view them as pests.  Particularly people whose balustrades or window frames or grain crops they’ve ripped apart.

But there is something magical about the sight of the big mob at dusk, floating across the valley, screeching and wheeling as they prepare to roost for the night.  They alight in one tree for a moment and then, all together, lift their wings and move on.  Drifting over the steep wooded slopes, passing across the creek and turning back again, they stitch together the sunlit and the shady side of the gully.  In their map of this place, I’m guessing, the switchback road and the marina, firetrails and bridges and cliff faces, the river a thousand steps below, fall away.

Watching the domestic scenes today: parents, siblings and lovers dangling and swinging in the branches, inspecting and deconstructing the palm tree, muttering, exclaiming, fondling and fighting, it’s easy to see how people want to keep these clever, beautiful creatures as pets.  And apparently while they can survive for forty or maybe even eighty years in the wild, they can live to be over a hundred in captivity.  So there’s something to be said for it, I suppose.  I’m reminded of those enthusiasts for longevity who have discovered you can live longer by eating less.  A lot less.  An extended life in which to contemplate the absence of pleasure.  For instance, here’s Cocky Bennett, a Sydney legend who apparently lived to 120, the last 20 years nude, mumbling “one feather more and I’ll fly”.