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

 

Nude trees and naughty birds

Who lives in our backyard?  How would I know? I haven’t been paying attention.

I see a flash of black and white down by the chook run and what do I think?  “Magpie”.  Humans, huh?

Yesterday, ominous thumps and crashes below the lightning-riven radiata pine had me racing to see if it had finally succumbed to a pincer movement of termites and southerlies.  But no, the demolition job was courtesy of a pied currawong, ripping the tree apart like it was a lego construction.  Well, a lego construction with integral insects.  Since in the (distant) future Lego will apparently be “sustainable”, one day this might even be a thing.

Perhaps it’s for the best that Lego’s green-washing target date is a decent decade and a half away.  Depending on how significant bark is to the structural rigidity of defunct pine trees we might need to use those infestation-proof plastic bricks – we’ve got enough of them under furniture and half buried in the garden – to rebuild our crushed house.

That’s if the currawongs are here to stay – and they might be.  Back in the day, before the ’40s, currawongs came down from the mountains to visit Sydney over the winter, but now they hang out in the big smoke all year round.  They like it down here, snacking on cute little birds and munching up the tasty berries of our attractive invasive plants.   If I want to save the roof, that monster privet the size of a redwood may have to go.

And a sighting today of another naughty black bird has cast doubt on the long-settled verdict in the Case of the Phantom Egg-Eater.

There was a stramash this morning between a crowd of brush turkeys and an crow, the latter carrying something that from a distance might appear to resembled a chicken’s egg.  I have no pictures of the actual incident but only an image extracted from the raven’s dream, in which hens’ eggs are light as a feather and easily borne in the beak for leisurely later consumption in convenient locations.

Later investigations showed that a freshly laid chook egg had indeed be devoured, but, in addition, one of the fake plastic eggs, carefully placed in the nest with to confuse and baffle hungry brush turkeys, had also vanished.

I’m not sure what this tells you about corvid intelligence but to me it suggests that ravens are optimists.  Apparently young European ravens are extremely curious.  In experiments where juvenile birds were offered “novel inedible items”, it seems, “birds never missed any potentially edible item … even with “highly cryptic objects”.”  I think it would be fair to call last year’s Easter hunt left-overs “highly cryptic objects”.  Maybe this was a young ‘un because apparently adult ravens are “neophobic”.  I’m assuming this doesn’t mean harbouring a hatred for Keanu Reeves in the Matrix sequels (though this is not an unreasonable viewpoint), but rather preferring actual foodstuffs to eccentric plastic replicas.

Where does the arrival of this new mob of razor sharp egg-robbers leave our prospects of our home-grown protein?  I can almost certainly outwit a brush turkey, but the socially adept, tool-using raven with the problem solving skills of a seven year old might give me a run for my money.  Perhaps I should plant some more broad beans.

And there’s more backyard black-feathered bandits where they came from.  The red-eyed, jet-feathered male koels are gone for the season, but the bowerbirds are back – mostly the “greens” – olive, stripey young bloods and females – but every now and then there’s a flash of violet-black as a grown male, glossy and gorgeous, disappears, full bellied, into the shrubbery, after a exhausting afternoon of shredding my kiwifruit vines.

But, despite my doziness, there was no way I could mistake today’s most magical visitor for a common or garden magpie.  Nude trees held no allure for her.  She watched me, still and cautious, from a leafy branch low in the hibiscus, patiently waiting for maybe five long minutes while I snapped away incredulously.

I reckon she came after the noisy miners that have descended on us over the winter, yipping and snapping at the wattle birds.  Last I saw the sparrowhawk, she was gliding off through the jungle at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden, indignant miners in hot pursuit.  I’m hoping she got the best of them.  What a fitting end for those hateful lerp eaters – fastidiously “killed, plucked and eaten”, all the while clutched in a sparrowhawk’s long and elegant middle toe.

I hope she’ll be back.  I’ll be keeping watch.

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

Lust for the laundry

It seems Andy Ninja is not the only member of our flock to be inextorably drawn to the laundry. Unless you have a passion for turps, detergent or window spiders, there’s nothing appealing in there.  But when I arrived home today, look what I found on the bench, gazing longingly through the murky window at the unreachable garden:

For a few minutes, I watched the brush turkey babe desperately pacing the length of the windowsill, hoping against hope that, somehow, against the odds, the glass that had proved impervious for the last four hours would miraculously dissolve so it could fly to freedom.  RB had noticed the chick in the laundry in the late morning and tried to shoo it out the open door with a mop but it freaked out so much that he gave up, assuming that with a floor area of 4 square metres and one wall occupied almost entirely by a door, the exit would be obvious.  Not so.

I’ve noticed this specific learning difficulty in brush turkeys before.  The chicks are so bold and resilient, the adults so quick to locate food of any type and so brazen around humans, that you kind of assume they have the smarts.

Yet I have regularly seen a brush turkey “trapped” inside the veggie garden by my laughably poorly constructed bamboo and chicken wire fence.  The fence is a metre high: Snowball the silky bantam could probably jump over it.  The brush turkey obviously flew there in the first place.  But in a moment of stress, none of these minor details seem to matter.  The turkey will run up and down the fence line in a frenzy, as if my flimsy excuse for a fence was the perimeter wall of Alcatraz.

By the time I arrived, the brush turkey chick had exhausted itself and was a doddle to grab.  Given the complete parental neglect that characterises the early childhood of these birds, at least I didn’t have to feel guilty about mum or dad abandoning it after a whiff of the garlic-and-epoxy glue stench of my hands.

The chick looks calm enough in the photo RB took, but the shot from our 8 year old’s perspective shows a wild “what the hell are the predators going to do with me?” look in its eye.  I don’t think we’ll find it in the laundry again. But then again, thinking about those brush turkey problem solving and short term memory issues, we just might.

Some like it hot

After months of tattered leaves and mysterious disappearing fruits, I’ve finally got a small but perfectly formed crop of jalapeno peppers.  Christmas in Anglo Australia traditionally involves pacing around a baking kitchen with novelty oven gloves and lingering anxiety about possible food poisoning, so pickling something hot would seem seasonally appropriate.

I’ve figured out why I have anything to preserve.  Sometime over the last week or two, the robotic clicks and chirrs of the satin bowerbirds have faded out of our soundscape.  I’m not sure where our place fits into satin bowerbird’s cycle of the year.  Does our backyard counts as “open woodland” where according to WIRES bowerbirds move in autumn and winter? Or is our vegetable patch a “territory… occup[ied] year after year” in the spring breeding season….?

One way or another, having kept the overshadowing trees in trim all winter, (with the odd mouthful of chilli leaf, grape vine and mulberries, just to freshen the palate) it seems they’re off to do their fine topiary work elsewhere.  I just hope the spiky sticks that I used to fence in my chilli plants in a vain attempt to protect them from marauders didn’t do any permanent damage to their lovely violet eyes – I’m pretty sure topiary, not to mention collecting and arranging blue pegs, is easier with binocular vision… But do satin bowerbirds have binocular vision…?  That’s a research project for another day…

Going cuckoo

You’re suddenly awake.  It’s very very early in the morning.  There’s an loud, insistent two-note call right outside your bedroom window.  It goes on and on and on, each time inching up in pitch, getting more and more desperate until it’s pretty much a hysterical squeak.  Just when you think the bird’s going to start outright screaming or explode, abruptly it stops.  You settle down in bed.  And then it starts again.

Or it’s the middle of the night.  Somewhere in the darkness, there seems to be a huge, angry and deeply confused seagull, belligerently squawking in disgruntlement and disgust: “Where the hell’s the beach??! And where are my chips!!!?”

It’s spring and they’re back.  Koels with their plaintively annoying round-the-clock cries, and channel billed cuckoos, raging at midnight (and during the day as well).

I heard my first koel, bang on time, the day after the vernal equinox; a raucous channel billed cuckoo interrupted one of my classes a few days before.  They’ve flown in from the north in time for the breeding season.  Sydney: it’s officially spring.

Despite their loud voices I have only ever eyeballed koels a couple of times.  On both occasions it was a whining juvenile that got my attention.  Down the bottom of the garden a year or two, I watched a great galumphing teenager begging for takeaway from a  motherly if diminutive wattlebird. We’re still working on installing LBB (little brown bird) habitat around here.  In the meantime wattlebirds rule the roost, along with magpies, kookaburras, rainbow lorikeets, cockies, brush turkeys – the usual self-confident generalists and anthropophiles (is that even a word?).  Which suits the koels fine, since red wattlebirds seem to make great parents.

Channel billed cuckoos prefer currawongs and occasionally magpies as babysitters, and since a mob of maggies has been hanging out at our place over the winter, I wonder if we might get an in-situ “fig hawks” or two as well.  My dad spotted a mega-cuckoo at the top of the drive last weekend, so it just might happen. Surprisingly, considering its deafening cries and outlandish hornbird-esque appearance,  no-one knows much about what the channel billed cuckoos get up to in their spare time.   So, go, backyard birdwatchers, go! Do that citizen science thing!

For all the mystery, it seems these guys, like the brown cuckoo doves, cooing outside the kitchen window in a more decorous and paradigmatically cuckooish way, are some of the winners of the anthropocene.  They like us and our tasty fruit-bearing trees.  And they favour the parenting style of the other birds that enjoy the buffet. Currawongs have come down from the mountains in the last forty years to snack on Sydney’s privet and lantana, and the visiting cuckoos are pretty happy about it.

Reflecting on how much these birds seem to enjoy our company, I’m tempted by a “humans-as-brood-parasites” line of thinking.  Begging for food from our animal compatriots, all the while chucking their babies out of the nest. Terminating the blood lines of the things that came before us in a flash and replacing them with more and more of our own offspring.  Bigger, noisier and more devious than the critters that feed us and house us.

But let’s not go there.  It’s a nasty thought, and whatever we might say about humans, cuckoos just aren’t that bad.

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”.