Flying lawnmowers

There’s aren’t too many workplaces that have their own bird list.  Or offices that you can use as a hide for stalking coy marshbirds.

Buff banded rail with raised leg long and skinny

The elusive Buff Banded Rail of Mars Creek

On the 5 k walk that bookends my train commute from Berowra to Epping, I might see a tree creeper or a figbird, a scrubwren or a fairy wren, a flock of silver-eyes or gerygones or red-browed finches, a eastern rosella or a crew of glossy black-cockatoos.  But the twitching doesn’t end when I arrive, because Macquarie University, where I work, is no mean place for bird watching either.

On occasion I’m asked to explain to prospective “customers” why they should study with us, rather than one of the other fine educational institutions in Sydney.  This kind of sales-pitch is not really my strong point – I’m a teacher, not a real-estate agent.  I find myself fatally drawn to talk, not so much about the passionate lecturers, the interdisciplinary subjects, the fancy technical facilities or even the light-drenched underground train station with tranquil majesty of a church, but mostly about the parrots.  Which, unfortunately, seems to be a niche interest from a teenaged point of view.

Upside down coot horizontal small lighter

So when I found myself surrounded by maybe a hundred birds – magpies, swamp hens and miners mixing it with the galahs and cockies – on my walk home, I wasn’t too surprised.  But the long-billed corellas – their red slashed throats and preposterously dangerous looking beaks – were a new one on me.  For a start they aren’t meant to be in Sydney at all.

According to my bird book and the Michael Morecombe app on my phone, corellas are birds of the inland and the south. But for all that, there are plenty of of them around the cities of the eastern seaboard these days.  So very many in fact that in fact, a corella poisoner has been at work in the Central Coast, killing scores of birds from the flocks that roost in parks on the shores of Lake Macquarie.

Mob of corellas crop smaller

A flock of little corellas at Speers Point on the Central Coast

So how did the corellas get to Sydney and Brisbane anyway?  One idea, as put about by Martyn Robinson from the Australian Museum, is that corellas moved east from the plains during the drought.  But even he agrees that flock numbers have swelled  – along with the wild birds’ English vocabulary – thanks to escapees from cages.  Long-billed corellas in particular are apparently wonderful talkers.

On the face of it, looking at the huge flocks creaking and wheeling over ovals and golfcourses, this sounds like an unlikely idea.  But tracking back through Trove, the wonderful searchable archive of Australian newspapers digitised by the National Library of Australia , it seems that corellas have been going rogue for a long time.

The first reference I find about these birds as pets in New South Wales is a story in 1878 in the Australia Town and Country Journal in about Mr D.E.Dargin bringing them 500 miles overland to join “collected goods of every sort” at the Bathurst Show.  And by 1879 we have the first Sydney corella reported missing:

Lost corella jpeg

It’s a fine thought – these long-lived, clever and social birds breaking out of their cages and joining their wild confederates.  My friend Rose has a beautiful story about a tame galah passed on to her after its previous human died.  She kept it in an aviary outside and most days a flock of wild galahs would land and spend some time on the grass nearby.  One bird in particular would always linger by the caged bird after the rest of the flock departed.

Eventually Rose decided to open the aviary door and let the two love birds fly off together into the sunset.  Galahs can live for up to eighty years, and while they form permanent pair bonds, they will find a new mate if their partner dies.  I like to think of the two of them out there somewhere, enjoying a late-life romance with a side serve of onion weed.

Galahs two heads together corellas background crop

Some people – especially farmers – see corellas as pests. Apparently the long-billed species are a particular blight on ovals and golf courses, thanks to the six inch deep holes they can dig for roots and corms with their spectacular beak.  To be honest this habit endears them to me – there’s a fine radical history to the defacing of golf courses.

Dandelion at MQ extreme closeup

There was obviously good eating to be had last week on Macquarie’s sweeping lawns. I wonder, though, if the very oldest parrots that visit the campus still remember the finer pickings from the time, in the sixties, when it was all market gardens, orchards and chicken farms.

Long beaked corella with grass in front of sign long and skinny amend

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.

Russet trees & scarlet tails

Is that fall colour I see on the hillside as the mist parts over Calabash Bay?  Nope, wrong season, wrong continent.  It’s the golden-brown tips of the casuarina trees, the males that is, laden with pollen and catching the morning light.

For all their evocative latin label – named after their cassowary-like foliage – the casuarinas are a mournful kind of tree, I think.  The wind whistling through the wispy branchlets of the she-oaks takes me straight back to solitary times in childhood.  Even Wikipedia notes, rather poetically, how quiet it is in a she-oak forest, sound muffled by the blanket of fallen “needles”, in an understory where other things refuse to grow.

Not so quiet this morning, though.  Just as I was cursing my missed train, there was a “kraaaaak!” and a flash of red in the trees between the commuter car park and the RSL.  New guys in town (or new to me anyway): glossy black-cockatoos.

Two young fellas and an older female, I reckon – a typical little group for these birds, it seems, unlike the yellow and red tailed black-cockatoos that stay in bigger flocks.  The two lads flapped from tree to tree, red tails glowing in the sun, while mum (or cocky-cougar?) chilled out next to Berowra Car Care, having a good old preen.

Glossy black-cockatoos are fussy eaters.  The penny has dropped for yellow-tails that they need to diversify their eating habits and these days they’re doing okay, thanks to pine trees like the great big decrepit ones in our yard.  But these birds really only like the woody fruits of the allocasuarinas  – and turn their noses up at even some of those.  The black she-oak, casuarina littoralis, is a particular favourite and, now I’ve started to notice them in their winter finery, it seems there’s plenty of them around here.

But the black oaks don’t come back too well from big, hot fires.  And the glossy black cockies are competing with galahs, corellas, sulphur cresteds and mynahs – birds that don’t mind land being cleared and subdivided.  Humans knock down the big old trees, feral bees nick the nesting hollows and possums steal black-cockatoo eggs.  Perhaps it’s not surprising I haven’t seen these lovely birds before.

Or maybe they’ve been here all along, “inconspicuous and cryptic”, leaving a trail of half-chewed casuarina orts, just a red flash in the golden silence of the she-oak trees.

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

Timber!

We’ve had a mob of at least fifteen yellow tailed black cockatoos hanging around in the last few days, mewing like strangled cats and being chased around by magpies and (I think) even noisy minors.  We get the yellow tails quite often around these parts, especially in the winter-time, thanks to the large and sickly but apparently tasty radiata pines that loom over our place.

The rule in Hornsby Shire is you can cut down a tree that’s within three metres of the foundations of your house.  If only there was some special by-law where the council chops down the tree for you for free if you can’t slip a paperback book between a towering pine and your bathroom.  One of these days I’ll be communing with nature and the nearest treebole will swell just that tiny bit further and burst straight through into the shower cubicle. That fresh piney smell with not a cent spent on disinfectant.

It’s been very very very windy in Sydney lately, and quite a few people have been unfortunate enough to experience that piney odour, quickly followed by plenty of refreshing indoor rain. We’ve been pretty lucky, but we’ve spent a lot of time staring anxiously out the window at various ominously swaying monumental specimens.  When I lived in Brisbane I used to be a bit judgey about the lawn to tree ratio in most peoples’ yards.  But if cyclones start creeping their way down the coast I may have to reconsider.

Yellow tailed black cockatoos are doing pretty well on the east coast, including urban areas, no doubt thanks to their penchant for pines.  But apparently they often struggle to find nesting sites, preferring hollows in trees a century or more old.  They seem to like our senescent radiatas, and spend time perched high on the various dead branches voguing.  I hope, when we finally save enough shekels to pull down the extensive array of dangerous trees in our yard, we still see them.

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”.

 

Things that go clang in the night

Tiptoeing down to the bottom of the garden through the midwinter gloom (or, to be precise the astronomical twilight) for some last-minute salad greens, I hear a sudden clang in the chook yard.

It’s grandpa. Well, Grandpa’s patented galvanised iron chicken feeder, slamming shut.  Something’s been chowing down on the chooks’ supper, and it isn’t Andy Ninja.

Andy at the feeder cropped 2

According to the manufacturers, Grandpa’s are vermin proof, requiring the heft of a chook to access the munchies inside.  And we carefully checked the skies before training our girls, since apparently cockies, despite being lightweights, comparatively speaking, have be known to figure out to jump mob-handed on the foot-pedal to get to the goodies.  And it’s not a brush turkey, for all their proprietorial air.  It’s after their bedtime.

In my fantasy life, my garden, as well as being effortlessly fecund with nature’s edible bounty, is an ideal habitat for rare and exciting native creatures.  The clang, in this universe, would be a shy and endangered Long-Nosed bandicoot, taking a detour from its usual diet of grubs and tubers to snatch a mouthful of scratch mix, as if to assure me, through this moment of dietary eccentricity, that I am walking lightly on this earth.

long-nosed-northern-bandicoot.ashx

In fact, I’m pretty sure we do have bandicoots in the back yard, but I’ve only once had a fleeting glimpse a white bum disappearing into a disorderly pile of prunings (or “habitat” as I like to think of it).  If they are attempting to communicate with me through the medium of conical nose-holes disturbingly close to my seedlings, I’m not quite sure what the message might be.

In my nightmares, on the other hand, the visitor at dusk is a Liverpudlian Super Rat, that somehow sneaked into the shipping crate when we left the UK seven years ago and has been loitering in the bottom of the garden ever since, disembowelling cats and swallowing brush turkey eggs whole. Okay, the Super Rat may be not all bad.

A giant rat caught in Liverpool.

There’s a more endearing rodent possibility: perhaps it’s a hard working and cooperative clan of mice, like the very cute singing ones in Bagpuss.

Mice in bagpuss 2

I could hide behind the generous leaves of the custard apple and try to catch the interloper in the act.  But since there’s a sharp westerly blowing and further research is bound to disappoint, one way or another, I think I’ll allow the Clanger to remain a mystery.

clangers