About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Are Currawongs Always Wong?

I wrote this very recently for the Canberra Ornithologists' Group newsletter Gang-gang (http://www.canberrabirds.org.au/); it occurs to me, given the passions that Pied Currawongs can inspire in eastern Australia, that it might be worth offering it to a wider audience as well. I've edited it very slightly to take into account the different context.
The boldly staring eye is one of the first things people remark on. The heavy straight business-like beak with the wicked little hook on the end suggests, quite rightly, deadly purpose. Most of their hunting is for invertebrates, searching carefully, stopping to listen and relentlessly pursuing small prey under loose bark and in crevices, hammering at surfaces with that powerful beak. Vertebrates feature quite heavily too however, and grisly stories abound, if we choose to interpret them that way. Eye witness accounts refer to a persistent assault on the feet of a large Green Tree Frog until it fell to the ground, was seized and eaten as it was held down; another tells of a pair working as a team to harry a Feather-tailed Glider. It is understandable if people were shocked at seeing one hurtle into a family of Superb Fairy-wrens and seize the blue male, or select a male Scarlet Robin from a mixed foraging party. Accounts are numerous of eggs and nestlings taken. Are you nodding grimly? Sorry, what was that – currawongs?? No, no, I was talking about Grey Shrike-thrushes, generally one of our ‘favourites’. 

If you’re suggesting that it’s not the same thing you’d be right – in fact unlike shrike-thrushes, currawongs are primarily fruit eaters, at least outside of breeding season. (We normally use ‘currawong’ in the south-east mainland to imply Pied Currawong, but the comments here are generally applicable to the other species as well.) Overall they are truly omnivorous, but even so most of their meat is in the form of insects; their favoured prey is phasmids, the big stick insects which in numbers can defoliate eucalypt forests. In particular they favour the big-bodied gravid female phasmids, for which a million eucalypts are doubtless grateful, in their quiet way.
OK, of course I’m trying to make a point here. We have favourites, in almost any facet of life, which is fine as long as we acknowledge our biases, at least to ourselves. It’s understandable that we should get upset that ‘our’ nests are raided in our yards that we’ve set up to protect wildlife. On the other hand, everyone loves blue wrens, but they can slaughter hundreds of native animals, including babies, in our garden every day. So, our concern for birds preying on other animals, including baby ones, does not extend to insects. Our bias here is almost entirely towards other vertebrates.
The really important difference between currawongs and shrike-thrushes in this context is simply one of abundance. If shrike-thrushes were present in flocks, searching the shrubbery for nests, we may well turn our animus towards them and feel benignly towards the occasional cheery Pied Currawong we encountered. We’ve done two things here (and make no mistake, this one is primarily down to us). Both are due to the fact that we’ve improved conditions for currawongs in Canberra, primarily by planting exotic berry-producing shrubs like Cotoneaster and Pyracantha species. These produce fruit mostly in autumn and winter, providing a reliable food source at what would normally be a tough time of year, and there is little doubt that this allows currawong populations to remain higher through winter than would have been the case in pre-European times.
Furthermore until recently virtually the entire Canberra Pied Currawong population headed for the hills in spring to breed in the mountains. Even in the early 1980s a begging currawong in Canberra was a most unusual occurrence. In 1976 the surprisingly impressive Readers Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds commented that “very few people have ever seen their nests”, a statement that seems ludicrous today. Now, while many Pied Currawongs do still breed in the mountain forests, very many also breed in the same suburbs where they spend winter. There are two implications of this dramatic behavioural change. The period when growing baby currawongs want lots of protein to get them established (like most other chicks) is the time when currawongs prey most on vertebrates, including nestlings. Formerly this harvest took place out of sight and largely out of mind, but suddenly it was happening right in our faces. A secondary implication of this was that the menu in suburbia was rather different from the mountain fare. Up there, discreetly hidden away, all the nestlings taken are of native species; in suburbia a good proportion are exotics such as Feral Pigeons, Starlings, Blackbirds and Common Mynas. Overall the proportion of currawong diet which comprises native birds has undoubtedly fallen in recent decades (though the higher number of currawongs must also be considered).
Our concern with currawong diet is not new, though the focus of the concern has changed. Alec Chisholm, in his column in the Argus of 27 October 1934, reported that the Brisbane Pest Destruction Board from 1925 to 1934 paid (the bounty is not recorded) for the carcases of 55,204 ‘Scrub-magpies’ (ie Pied Currawongs). Their crime is not described, but I assume it was for pinching fruit rather than for the killing of other birds (after all they also paid out for 171,541 starlings and 443,913 sparrows). Various early writers listed a wide range of food taken to which they were not welcome, including raisins on the drying rack, quinces, olives, maize (after stripping off the covering) and chook eggs, as well as insects which were not begrudged. References to nestlings are very scarce.

I don't expect to change any minds by a mere opinion piece. But if it encourages someone to re-examine the nature of a bias, it will have been worth while. Birds are just what they are - only we judge them as being right or wong.


Denis Wilson said...

Hi Ian
I see that Martin has already welcomed you to the world of Nature Blogging. I second that motion. You are well experienced in communicating about Nature and nature observation. So it should be a good experience for you.
I would like to add your new Blog to my collection of Aussie Nature Bloggers I follow.
Best wishes for your writing.
Denis Wilson

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for those kind and welcoming words Denis. I'm looking forward to the experience, but am also feeling rather overwhelmed by it - there are long shadows cast by long-standing nature bloggers out there, yours not least among them. I shall add your blog to my public list. Cheers, Ian.

Frank Antram said...

Hi Ian
Thanks for the invitation to view your new blog site. It looks pretty good to me but I've never blogged before (am I blogging by posting this comment?!), and I'm unlikely to do so very often, sorry! But I've been meaning to congratulate and thank you for the article on the currawong that you published in Gang-Gang and have reproduced here. It is great to hear someone talking positively about Pied Currawongs - a species I much admire and love - a quintessentially Australian bird, second only to the Australian Magpie. It is strange (or perhaps not!) that the currawong is so disliked by many humans when it seems to share many of the human characteristics - successful, adaptive, aggressive, cunning, musical, etc.

Mrsmcmum said...

We have a pair that nest in a large gum in our Sydney backyard. They are the best parents. This morning they saw off an enormous pair of Channel billed cuckoos. One of the currawong babies has fallen out of the nest, and the parents are still valiantly trying to feed it on our balcony railing. Any creature you watch up close for a while can capture yuor affection.

Mrsmcmum said...

And here we are two years and three broods later, and the new babies are just out of the nest. They lost one early this spring in a violent storm, one has made it safely to a neighbouring tree, but one is down in the garden and squawking! The parents are calling and trying to get it to hop up through the bushes, but it just yells. I'm keeping an eye out for cats, but otherwise trying to let nature take its course. Fortunately, our own cat is so old she barely worries about anything other than finding a nice sunny spot.

Barking Owl said...

For the first time close to us, a currawong pair has nested high in a gum tree in the next yard but one. We are in Rockhampton in central Queensland. There must have been four hatchlings. Unfortunately two are lying lifeless in the next door yard, but the two other nestlings have made it into our garden. They are about the size of bantam chooks and have not yet developed their long black tail feathers. Over a couple of days they have been repeatedly fed on the ground or in low shrub branches by an adult. The feeding is preceded by intense begging behaviour with squawking, open gape and wing flapping. Feeds are probably small insects or lizards. The baby birds seem to be starting to look for titbits on the ground as well. They can fly just a bit into trees up to about 2.5 m in height. We have put a water dish on the ground for them but won't hand feed these birds about which we have mixed feelings. We don't know why they all came out from the nest at such an early stage: we have not seen or heard any channel-billed cuckoos close by. We are a bit worried if the family settles in, especially as magpie-larks are nesting in our front garden.