Mother-of-millions takes to the waves

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You know a weed is a baddie when it will grow without dirt and entirely surrounded by salt water.  The Mother of Dragons inspires GoT fans and baby names but Mother-of-Millions – the stowaway on this attractively decrepit boat moored off Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury – inspires a deep and abiding hatred in bush regenerators, whose job is to try to get rid of weedy garden escapes like this one.

Mother-of-millions – a native of Madagascar – was imported to Australia in the 1950s as a drought tolerant garden plant.  It’s now a restricted invasive plant in Queensland, and can’t be given away, sold or released into the environment.  Here in coastal NSW and the northwest slopes and plains, it’s a declared noxious weed which means landowners (or in this case boat-owners) have a legal requirement to control it.  Like two-thirds of Australia’s noxious weeds, it’s a garden plant that got away.

To add to its charm, mother-of-millions (aka bryophyllum delagoense) is also toxic to humans, pets and livestock.  If animals eat enough of it (5 kilos for an adult cow) they quickly die with heart failure.  If they just have a snack, they’ll get bloody diahorrea, drool saliva, dribble urine and then die of heart failure.  Fortunately cattle are probably safe from this particular crop of bryophyllum.  Unless they are bovines with boats, or like a good swim.

You can pull mother-of-millions out by hand but it is, apparently, a soul destroying job.  The plant can reproduce from tiny seeds, dispersed both by wind and water – I’ve certainly seen colonies in bushland by Berowra Creek.  I hate to think how far and wide the seeds from this estuarine Typhoid Mary have spread.  The seeds remain dormant in the soil for ages, so getting rid of mother-of-millions is not a one-time-only job.  Like its toxic relative bryophyllum pinnate – the evocatively named resurrection plant – little plantlets growing on the leaves can also detach as you’re weeding.   Any tiny fragment of leaf can generate a new infestation.  You can spray it with herbicide, leave it in a black plastic bag to die, or hope for a visit from the (also introduced) South African Citrus Thrip which burrows through the leaves’ waxy coating to lay eggs on its flesh.  But none of this horticultural horror show works as well as setting it on fire.

We all have a biosecurity duty, of course: “any person… who knows (or ought to know) of any biosecurity risk, has a duty to ensure the risk is prevented, eliminated or minimised, so far as is reasonably practicable”.  And as a responsible gardener and card-carrying greenie, I take those duties seriously.  However I’m not sure the owner of this rickety vessel would embrace the idea of a passing kayaker with a molotov cocktail torching his boat, for all its mother of infestations.

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Too hot to handle?

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Although echidnas are pretty common, I’ve rarely seen seen them in Berowra.  So when I saw this one flopped out in the neighbours’ front yard on my sweaty walk home from work yesterday – ambient temperature in the mid 20s even at 7pm – I was worried.  Were echidnas, like fruit bats and stingless bees, troubled by temperature extremes?  Had this one been driven from its usual secluded haunts by this horrid heat wave?  Should I be on the blower to WIRES?

A cursory google did not inspire confidence.  Wikipedia notes that echidnas don’t sweat (in fact, they don’t pant, lick, or even wee on themselves and flap their wings to cool off either) and suggests that they “cannot deal with heat well“.  WIRES agrees that echidnas “cannot tolerate temperatures above 30 degrees“.

Notwithstanding, this seemed to be a very sprightly monotreme.  Most of the echidnas I’ve met have more or less fixed this position:

This beastie, however, was very busy, ignoring me and rummaging around in the flowerbeds.  Could it really be in trouble?  I decided, for the moment, that human intervention wasn’t necessary and then went home to check whether I’d just made a stupid decision.  Should I trust Wikipedia or my instincts?

I hit pay dirt when I found “Thermoregulation by Monotremes” by Queensland’s “Mr Hot Echidna”, Peter Brice.  As a researcher who has devoted time to  inserting “calibrated temperature sensitive radio-transmitters … coated with a smooth layer of inert wax… into the abdominal cavities of echidnas” (Brice et al 2002), he’s your go-to guy on this topic.

Niche subject as it might seem, the way echidnas and platypuses manage their body temperature has played an interesting role in propping up a hierarchical, human-centred view of evolution.  You’ve heard the story before, I’m sure. From this viewpoint, animals whose bodies are set up differently to us fancy-pants “classic mammals” are viewed as “primitive”.  Early twentieth century researchers decided that, for instance, that playpus had “an inadequate regulating mechanism” when after only 17 minutes at 35 degree temperatures, their research subject  “turned onto its back and fainted” (Brice, 2009, 260).  A poignant tale and the sort of thing that led one early twentieth century researcher to conclude that monotremes were “‘the lowest in the scale of warm-blooded animals’” (Brice, 2009, 256)

Don’t get me wrong, echidnas are very weird animals.  And that’s leaving aside the egg laying mammal business and the once-venomous spurs in their backwards facing hind legs.

Echidnas are cool. 31 degrees counts as a “normal” body temperature for them, though only females incubating eggs really keep their temperatures steady for long.  They seem to occupy a half-way house between warm blooded and “cold blooded” animals.  Echidnas don’t entirely rely on their surrounding environment to warm themselves as reptiles – ectotherms – do.  But unlike us humans – homeothermic endotherms – with our tedious need for a stable and predictable body temperature – echidnas can run hot or cold.

Just when you thought we were all “thermed”-out, you find that echidnas are also constitutional eurytherms – they can handle wide range of temperatures – and facultative endotherms – they warm their bodies up, in part, by doing stuff.

Echidnas also hibernate – well, some of them do, if they’ve eaten enough by the time the cold weather rolls in. But their hibernation, or its timing at least is, according to Brice (2009, 257) “distinctly odd”.  They often kip out during the late summer and then wake up to mate at coldest part of the year.  And they can deal with fluctuating temperatures in a way I can only envy – for instance, after a chilly night, they can dig their way out of shelter with their blood temperature of only twenty degrees.  With no bedsocks.

And they can also deal with a day spent in a hollow log at 40 degrees C without expiring from the heat, though no one knows exactly how.

We shouldn’t seeing echidnas and their wildly fluctuating temperatures as primitive, I reckon. Instead we should admire the way these critters harbour resources with their furry but weirdly chilly bodies, helping them live above the snowline in the Alps, in the desert and even on the sizzling streets of deepest surburbia.

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Echidna, close up and personal

References

Brice, Peter H. (2009) “Thermoregulation in monotremes: riddles in a mosaic” Australian Journal of Zoology, 2009, 57, 255–263

Brice, Peter H., Gordon C. Grigg, Lyn A. Beard, Janette A. Donovan (2002) “Heat tolerance of short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) in the field” Journal of Thermal Biology 27(6), 449-57

A confluence of critters

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Another sunrise, another paddle through a flooded river valley.  At Port Stephens the wide Karuah River meets the Myall as it meanders south, just behind the coastal dunes.

And where the water flowing from the network of wetlands and lagoons that is Myall Lakes joins the estuary, in a river delta protected from the destructive power of the Pacific waves, there’s Corrie Island.

A spot so fabulous for cautious amateur photographers in small and ancient boats, I circumnavigated it at the crack of dawn not once but twice over the silly season.  I may have been so exhausted I wept all over my Christmas crackers but it was worth it.

Just down the river from the RAMSAR protected wetlands at Myall Lakes, migratory birds that breed in the far north spend the arctic winters hanging out here.  I saw red knots (heads up: not very red in the non-breeding season) and grey tailed tattlers, far eastern curlews and bar tailed godwits.  In fact, I was treated to a bold dispay of the very barred tail of the bar tailed godwit, that tail that make the longest uninterrupted migration flight of any bird’s behind.

The eastern ospreys, in my previous experience elusive canopy lurkers, proved so indifferent to human proximity that I actually got bored with taking photos of them posing in the beautiful dawn light, and starting trying to snap the LBBs in the beachside brush, while the ospreys observed my inadequate efforts with golden eyes.

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A pair of eastern osprey?  The females are larger.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, here come the dolphins.

The famous pod of Port Stephens dolphins – well, the easterly, sociable estuarine pod, one of two quite distinct groups that lives in the harbour – swung by to check me out.  I stopped still in the swell, watching them case the beach. At one point the still water by the boat upwelled and the tip of a bottle nose appeared above the surface for just a second or two a couple of metres off the bow.

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Enter a caption

A couple of mornings later, I was back, having rashly promised my birdwatching brother dolphins, ospreys and eagles.  No need for a refund: they arrived one after another, right on cue.

And in between boat trips, it wasn’t just overeating and board games either.  There was also watching the local bird life overeating.

A baby sitella not quite sure how to handle the festive gift of a caterpillar…

And an Australian hobby enjoying Christmas dinner with us, swooping in to a branch above our holiday rental for some yuletide disembowelling.

I think we’ll be back.

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Poor lost souls

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There’s new sound in the garden just now.  A plaintive relentless cheeping.  But not the tiny piping tones of a naked, newly hatched chick.  No, it’s the muscular alto plea of the ginormous eastern koel chick to its diminutive red wattle bird parent.

And the wattlebirds are desperate.  I eyeballed the juvenile koel, lounging comfortably high in the canopy. Meanwhile its parent wheeled and fluttered in frenzied manner, perching here and pecking there, apparently driven to madness by the insatiable appetite of its parasitic offspring.

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No sooner was the mega-chick fed than it returned to its incessant harping, as if unloved and cruelly abandoned.

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As I crashed around trying to get a clear shot of the elusive ear-splitting koel, I saw, at the top of the very same tree, something I’d never seen here before, something genuinely sad and alone.

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A flying fox all by itself, a good twenty kilometres from the nearest bat camp way down the Pacific Highway at Gordon.

Flying foxes are very mobile, travelling up to 120 kilometres a night to feed.  We often hear them around our place on summer evenings, squealing and hurling fruit around.  During the year they migrate long distances following the peripatetic flowering seasons of eucalypts, melaleucas and rainforest trees, pollinating as they go.  Just like giant warm blooded bees, they carry pollen on their fur from one fragment of forest to another.  Flying foxes have been tracked moving as far as two thousand kilometres over the course of nine months and bat encampments have been described as more like railway stations or youth hostels than places of permanent residence.

But mega bats are sociable creatures and finding one on its own in the daytime like this is not a good sign.  I realised later I should have called the local WIRES group so someone with more expertise and a better head for heights than me could shin up its extremely tall tree to check it wasn’t injured by any of the usual suspects – barbed wire, open weave fruit netting or a dog bite.  But by the time I worked that out, it was the next morning, and the bat was gone – back to its digs in the local “Batpackers”, I hope.

I know some people feel about flying foxes the way I do about brush turkeys.  If you’re a fruit grower in NSW it is still possible to get a licence to shoot them to protect your orchards, although the mega bats actually prefer pollen and nectar as a food source – and  tightly secured, finely woven netting (one you can’t poke a finger through) protects crops better than a shotgun anyway.  In my backyard, the bats would be at the back of a very long queue for the ripe fruit anyway.  Ahead of me, of course, but behind the cockies and the possums for sure.

Deforestation means that there’s more conflict between flying foxes and humans these days, as the bats move into  the leafy suburbs where the fruiting and flowering plants are diverse and well watered.  They’re chatty critters with some “interesting” habits – urinating on themselves and then fanning their wings to cool down for one – which some people living nearby can find a hard to take (not to mention a couple of rare but deadly bat-borne diseases).

But the visibility of flying foxes in east coast Australian cities conceals the fact that (unlike brush turkeys) their numbers are in major decline.  One article suggests that at current rates, the grey headed flying fox, the type I found in my backyard, will be extinct by 2070.

The mega bats are particularly susceptible to high temperatures.  They start to “melt from the inside” in the words of a scientist, at just about the same temperature that is unsupportable for stingless bees, 43 degrees C.  A couple of years ago in Queensland,  45,000 megabats, mostly the tropical black flying fox, died in one day during a heat wave.  But high temperatures may just be the final straw when bats are short of food anyway.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been scores of baby grey-headed bats found dead in parks along the east coast.  Both habitat loss and the aftermath of an El Nino, according to researcher Peggy Eby, have led to a food shortage.

“The mothers are going through a difficult nutritional phase, and they’re reducing the amount of milk they’re producing and the young starve.  They hang on to the females for the first several weeks of life, when she flies from the roost at night, and they simply would lose the strength that they need to hold on.”

I’m not sure why this stray found its way to our yard.  I hope it wasn’t injured here.  We don’t have a dog or barbed wire and we use veggie nets to keeps the bowerbirds and the brush turkeys off the fig trees (or if we’re feeling cheap, old trampoline netting from the side of the road).  But we still haven’t raised the cash to chop down the nasty cocos palm that is so appealing and yet so dangerous to flying foxes.

I hope the neighbours’ pool gave was a spot for a cooling bellydip and the jungle at the bottom of the yard gave it somewhere to recoup, recalibrate its GPS and get ready to head back to its pals at base camp.  Lovely as it was to have the chance to take his photo, I hope we hear him but don’t see him again.

Beekeeping without pain

“Do you still want that hive of stingless bees?”

Are there people out there who say no to the offer of a thousand tiny flying pets?  Perhaps there are, but I’m not one of them.

So when my marvellous friend Laura decided to divide her hive of native bees – Tetragonula carbonaria, the variety of Australia’s 11 species of stingless bees most commonly kept in backyards – I was certainly not going to look a gift bee in the mouth.  Even if I was able to inspect the teeny mouths of these diminutive 4mm long critters.

Laura was able to share the joy because about every 18 months a healthy hive of these highly social bees doubles in size and can be divided to create a new colony. There’s no worries about finding a queen for each of the two new hives.  European honey bee queens sting their rivals to death, but in a charmingly democratic process, the queen for the new colony of native stingless bees is selected by the workers from the emerging virgin queenlets hanging around waiting for their moment. This thought pleases me almost as much as the factoid acquired from my new bible, Tim Heard’s (2016) The Australian Native Bee Book, that bees are kind of like wasps that evolved to become vegetarians. My new pets are a vego workers’ collective.

Splitting hives is how Kuring-gai Council’s WildThings bee programme (that, via Laura’s benificence, has made us beekeepers) has distributed 900 hives around NSW.  And it’s how the number of meliponists – the appealingly pretentious name for keepers of stingless bees – tripled between 1998 and 2010.  Carbonaria are opportunistic snackers and seem to like it in the suburbs, with their mishmash of local and introduced flowering plants.

There are around 1600 types of native bee in Australia.  We’ve put up a lovely poster by Gina Cranson of some of the locals on our back door to try to improve our bee-spotting skills.  But of the highly social Australian stingless bees T.Carbonaria is the one that copes best with a temperate climate, with a range that extends from the Daintree to the NSW South Coast.

Here in Sydney it’s getting on the chilly side for them, so we won’t be able to harvest sugarbag from our hive.  Our bees will need the pots of honey they stash around the beautiful and distinctive spiral shaped brood comb, along with their surprisingly large reserve of pollen, to make it through the cooler months.  Stingless bees produce a lot less  than European bees anyway – a kilo or so a year, compared to up to up to 75 kilos – although sugarbag is apparently delicious.

We can’t steal sweet treats from them, but our tiny pets won’t be idle.  Native bees don’t seem to be vulnerable to varroa virus, the nasty bug threatening bee health the world over that may spread to Australia any day now.  So I can be sure that my mango, macadamia and avocado trees will have pollinators in the eventuality of a bee-pocolypse… assuming I don’t succeed in killing the trees (or the bees) first.  Happily, however, given my patchy track record as a farmer, our new friends will happily roam up to 500 metres away, well beyond our wonky fence line in search of tucker.

You don’t have to walk bees, desex them, groom them, clip their nails or pick up their poo (although in winter the “house bees” can’t be bothered carrying the dunny can too far from the nest, so if you choose to keep stingless bees on your verandah and you are the sort of person who is troubled by piles of barely visible dung you might need to invest in a nano pooper scooper).  But of course, despite that, I have managed to find something to worry about.

Stingless bees don’t like spells of frosty weather or very very hot days.  If it’s over 42 degrees inside the hive the whole damn lot of them can die.  So I was a bit antsy when Sydney had a couple of sizzlers in our first week as bee keepers.  The spot we’ve picked out for them is shaded by vines and protected from the afternoon sun, as well as catching the morning rays in winter time.  And our hive is wrapped in a polystyrene cover to insulate the colony against temperature extremes.  Once we’ve had them for a year or two we might take Laura’s approach: “tough love”.  But because we don’t really want to execute our bees (to be referred to collectively, the kids have decided, as Bob) before we even get to know them, this time we rigged up a bit of extra shelter and some evaporative airconditioning.

The only trouble with polystyrene is, as all chicken keepers know, it’s like crack to birds.  They don’t have too many taste buds and for some reason they can’t get enough of that squeaky mouth feel.  The gaggle of teenaged brush turkeys that loiter in our backyard hoping for leftovers from the chooks obviously decided that bees with a side-order of synthetic aromatic polymer would make a refreshing after-dinner snack.

Maybe I’ll come to regret the peace loving nature of the vegan commune in the backyard.

What’s inside the bird cage?

Not artichokes.

I spent all of last autumn dreaming of artichokes.

In the three years since my last bumper crop, which grew splendidly with no attention at all while we were half a world away, I have tried and failed to get more magnificent edible thistles towering over my veggie patch.

Our garden is a challenging environment for any seedling.  I suspect the sad fate of the last two generations of artichokes can be attributed to the deep gloom that descends on the yard around the time of the autumn equinox.  But there are other possible suspects in the frame…

Yes, rabbits.  My transition to the Mr McGregor, the homicidal carrot fancier in Peter Rabbit is now complete.  But so far I’ve avoided GBH with a shovel.  Instead I got me a fine flock of bird cages.

A budgie lover in Berowra must have had a mass break-out just before the last heavy rubbish day and I was the lucky beneficiary.

But my visions of bounty weren’t to be.  I’m not sure if some small but dextrous herbivore lifted up the tiny food hatch and sneaked in for a unappetising meal of baby thistles or if the artichokes lost the will to live in dank captivity.  On the upside, budgie cages are evidently great at keeping rabbits off your rocket.

Not strawberries

So, there are no artichokes in my bird cages.  And so far, there’s no strawberries either.

My other score from the last council cleanup was a load of aviary wire and some nice hardwood architraves.  A few bucks on hinges and I was able to put into place the final stage of my termite-assisted plan to reduce my erstwhile (and totally pointless) garden path into rotten timber. My aim: to grow strawberries under the flight path of the gate-that-used-to-be-a-bed.  Or more precisely, to grow strawberries for human rather than chicken consumption.

I was pretty happy the outcome of my chookhouse-tolerances joints, held together with an assortment of mixed screws from the jar at the back of the cupboard.

Thus far the chooks haven’t managed to break in but the strawberries seem somewhat oppressed by their location.  Every day is a bad hair day.  I’m hoping they’ll be ugly but productive but the signs don’t look good so far.

On the bright side, lazily throwing scratch mix over the gate has produce a little protected patch of green in the razed earth of the chook yard.  I’m not sure the strawberries enjoy the competition from wheatgrass, but the hens have a hippie feast every time I do the weeding.

Fewer chickens than there oughta be.

Sadly, on one bleak and rain drenched evening in the middle of winter, most of our hens weren’t in the birdcage either.  Only Cyan, bottom of the pecking order thanks to her gammy eye, and Treasure, broody as usual, were in Colditz, the predator proof cage, when a hungry fox came to visit.

Only one of the chooks that had been perched in the favoured roost, the potted fig tree, survived, a fairly run-of-the-mill Barnevelder whose name we could never quite remember.  After the slaughter, we renamed her Xena as a mark of her prowess in battle.  Bold and beautiful Cleo, curmudgeonly Snowball, at least 8 years old, feisty Morgan, shy but reliable Abby and inexpertly named Tigress all disappeared or were found in bits in the yard the next morning by the shellshocked RB.    Given the sad end of Shyla under similar circumstances at the same season the year before, you can only conclude we are poor chicken keepers and, frankly, very slow learners.

So now, come rain or shine, you’ll find our remaining hens locked up every night.  At the moment, it’s a lonely night for Xena, locked up in Palm Beach.  Her mum, Treasure, laid low by has some mysterious ailment, has been in the intensive care ward in the laundry, while one-reviled Cyan has now attained the pre-eminent position of queen of Colditz, adoptive mother to three new day-old chicks.

Fortunately, Xena can always rely on her playdates.  Just like next doors’ kids, the neighbours’ hens nip through gap in the fence and hang around outside waiting for our girls to be let out for the day.  They share a feed and if we’re lucky lay an egg or two on our side of the “magic portal” (to clarify: we get eggs from the chooks but sadly not the kids).

Three cheers for the return of stay-at-home scrumping!  Low-level food thievery without even leaving your own backyard.

And no baby brushturkeys

Until they’re 12 weeks old, the chicks are confined to Colditz along with their adoptive mum, in case they get eaten by a kookaburra or pecked to death by one of their loving aunties.  None of them are taking imprisonment well.

Smuggling the chicks (sexed and vaccinated and genetically disparate) under relentlessly broody Cyan at the crack of dawn was a doddle. Especially compared the sleepless night I spent as a ignorant featherless human trying to keep the wee things safe and warm in a cardboard box under a desk lamp without setting the house on fire.

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They were happy at first.  But these days, the chicks and their mum spend most of their time pacing the length of the cage, apparently hoping to find a hidden exit.  Their only distraction is the thrill of scratching through the bug, straw and leaf litter mixture left in the potato patch after this year’s laughably miniscule harvest of spuds.

They’re particularly plaintive when they have visitors.

I’m not sure if all that frantic peeping is concern that one of their number has apparently gone astray from the flock, or jealousy that the baby brush turkey is free to roam the yard at will.

The little brush turkey spends a surprising amount of time close by, staring intently into the cage.  Perhaps there’s something more to it than the chick crumble dropping through the wire floor.  One night, tiptoeing down to shut in Xena for the night, I saw him roosting there, right on top of the cage.  Strange behaviour from a chick that never meets its siblings or its mother, let alone snuggling together with them at night.

Blood feud in the dawn redwood

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

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