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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Koel of the Wild; an exotic tale?

I got back from two delightful and stimulating weeks in Tasmania a couple of days back to discover that I'd missed a delicious piece of bird-inspired political farce at home - mystifyingly, the Hobart Mercury hadn't seen fit to report it. At the heart of the matter is a beast who seems to have assumed the mantle of centre of contention in Canberra in recent years, at least in matters natural.

Koels are a small group (around four species, depending on your favoured taxonomy) of large parasitic cuckoos in the genera Eudynamys and Microdynamis, found from eastern Asia to Australia. Our understanding of their relationships is still evolving (faster than the birds are); until recently the birds which move south each year from Indonesia and New Guinea to breed in eastern and northern Australia were regarded as part of the single widespread species Common Koel E. scolopaceus. Now many, though not all, authorities regard 'our' koels as part of a separate species, the Eastern or Pacific Koel E. orientalis.
Male Eastern Koel, Rosedale, south coast New South Wales.
Only he is this handsome glossy black; she is gorgeously mottled in browns and creams.
The female parasitises the nests of medium-large species such as wattlebirds and friarbirds (both large honeyeaters), magpie-larks (this being an Australian name, the bird is neither magpie nor lark!) and figbirds.
Female Eastern Koel, Canberra.
In fact this was taken from the balcony outside my study!
Immature Eastern Koel, Mount Molloy, Queensland.
This bird was being attended by Australasian Figbirds Sphecotheres vieilloti.
It is fair to say that most Canberrans are uninterested in complexities of taxonomy, and most indeed haven't seen a koel, since they can be surprisingly obscure when calling from within foliage. The common name apparently derives from Hindi, and is clearly onomatopoeic, from the male's somewhat manic two-note rising call; here's one example, but you'll easily find more. His alternative 'wirra wirra' song is probably even more manic. And here begins the story.

By their call shall you know them, and oh we do! We often divide the world into people who love X and those who hate it - and in Canberra often X = koel. People profess themselves to be driven demented by its often nocturnal serenade, though others, including me of course, love it and don't understand how it could be more annoying than traffic noise, say. 

Another key piece of information for what's about to follow - and I do seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time getting to the point today! - is that until about a decade ago koels were very scarce visitors to Canberra, with Sydney and the mid-south coast representing their normal limits. Recently however things have changed - a warming world being the most obvious and likely explanation - and they are now common summer visitors, even breeding regularly courtesy of our large population of Red Wattlebirds Anthochaera carunculata. 

A newly-elected member of our territory Legislative Assembly, Nicole Lawder (she was only elected on a count-back last June following the resignation of her leader who left for greener fields), has found herself opposition spokesperson on the environment, despite having no evident qualifications. (To be fair it's a pretty small pool of talent from which to draw a shadow cabinet, and indeed a cabinet.) The fact that this is foreign territory to her was shown up with dramatic embarrassment when, on behalf of a couple of her constituents, she asked the Environment Minister about the government's plan "to eradicate or manage" this "imported pest", the koel. Oops.

She later claimed she was merely representing her constituency, but .... no.

Of course this strategy, of demonising a species as exotic for personal purposes, is not original. Pigeon fanciers here and elsewhere have long sought ways of discrediting legislation protecting their bitterest enemies - large falcons, notably Peregrines, and goshawks in particular. These bird-specialising raptors are glad to snack on the passing flocks of racing pigeons, whose owners are less than keen to share.
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, Waikerie, South Australia.
Probably on the lookout for passing pigeon pie.
In the Top End of Australia (a sort of northern Wild West) in the post WW2 years, pigeon owners put it about that the Japanese had introduced Peregrines during the war to disrupt critical carrier pigeon communications lines... At the other end of the country, Tasmanian pigeon folk much more recently were convinced that evil Canberra pigeon-haters were introducing Peregrines to the Apple Isle - and they had proof! This turned out to be in the form of leg bands (taken from Peregrines they'd illegally shot) with a Canberra address on them - the standard inscription on all bands used for bird studies in Australia, which are co-ordinated by the national scientific research institution, based in Canberra.

So, logic and truth can be pretty irrelevant in the face of a good prejudice, especially when vested interests are involved. However, if you're seeking and training to be a government minister, it is probably best to cross-check the claims of your constituents (and perhaps even your political advisers) before you champion them too publicly. In this case, we'll see what's been learnt as time passes.

Next time, I'll aim to start sharing something of lovely Tasmania with you - no pigeons or even Peregrines though.



Flabmeister said...

Is it not the case that Peregrines are improving the species of pigeons by weeding out the unfit? Perhaps pigeon racers find it easier to blame vicious falcons (or tiercels - never let me be sexist) that to admit they are breeding slow doves?

Possibly the bodies politic in the ACT will benefit from a similar treatment at the hands of that well known predator, the electorate. Those that know their native species will survive while them as don't, won't.


Ian Fraser said...

Yes to all the above Martin! Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I live in hope....

Harvey Perkins said...

What other choice do we have, but to hope - we can't rely on common sense!

Ian Fraser said...

No, sadly it's not that common!