Extraordinary Birds of Australia
The sharp thrill of seeing birds reminded me of childhood happiness, gifts under the Christmas tree, perhaps, a kind of euphoria we adults manage to shut out most of the time. This is why I bird-watch, to recapture what it’s like to live in this moment, right now.
Bird watching is fascinating. It reminds us the wonders and mysteries of nature and life. Over 850 diverse range of bird species live and visit Australia. Amongst them, there are many varieties of parrots, honeyeaters and songbirds which belong to families not found on other continents. They play an important role in maintaining balance of the eco-system by eating insects, dispersing seeds and pollinating flowers.
In this article, we showcase 5 extraordinary Australian birds, each with unique abilities and wonderful traits.
There are only two species of Lyrebird in the world. Both are native to Australia – the Superb Lyrebird of south-eastern Australian mainland and southern Tasmania and the Albert’s Lyrebird, from subtropical forests on the Queensland and New South Wales border. Many rainforest bush walking tracks are named after them. However, they tend to be shy and you would be fortunate indeed to have a glimpse of their beautiful plumage flashing through the bushes as you approach.
Lyrebirds are one of the best known Australia birds, due in part to their extraordinary mimicking ability and the amazing singing and dancing performances of the males. During mating season, the male birds strut on display with their strikingly beautiful fan shaped tails.
There are several reasons why birds imitate. The most common reasons are to impress a mate, defend territory by mimicking sounds of predators, and for social acceptance. In fact we humans have a lot in common with birds and other animals. Haven’t we all felt the need to impress others, gain social acceptance, and define the boundary of our home by building fences?
There are plenty of funny anecdotal evidence of talking birds speaking just the right things in the right context to their human companions. Considering the neural functions required for such vocal learning, it’s clear that their intelligence cannot be underestimated. No wonder there is debate in the scientific community over whether some talking birds possess cognitive understanding of the language.
Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans associate the owl with wisdom, foresight and keepers of secrets. Owls, they say, speak the language of the wind, the trees, and the sky, and are a symbol of femininity because of their close connection to the moon. It is said that when guided by the spirit of the owl, you can see what is hidden to most – the reality beyond illusion and deceit.
They are nocturnal birds with excellent eyesight, hearing and strong claws. It is arguable whether their most interesting super-power is their silent flight ability and night vision, which allows them to hunt in the dark, or their party trick of being able to turn their heads in almost a full circle.
There are about 10 different species of owls in Australia; most are found in the eastern parts. Amongst them, the Barking Owl (also called winking owl) have the most unusual dog like woof-woof call. They are a robust, medium-sized hawk owl with an impressive wingspan around 2 to 3 times their body length and they sound absolutely adorable.
Apart from the barking call, barking owls have a range of other vocalisations from growls to howls to screams, depending on the perceived threats, which serve to warn the nesting partner. Their habitat spreads across the north eastern coast of Australia and the south west areas around Perth, where they love to sit in the hollows of old tree trunks and bark.
Australia isn’t satisfied with having birds that bark. It also feels the need to have birds that meow.
If you are ever hiking in a temperate or sub-tropical rainforest and you hear the sound of a cat being strangled, chances are you are hearing a catbird. The call of the catbird is described by some as a wailing meow, a mewing cat-like growl, or even like a siamese cat being hassled by a dog.
This mostly ground-dwelling forager has a distant cousin in America – the Grey Catbird. But in Australia, catbirds come in distinctly greener varieties. There’s the Green Catbird (it’s very green), the Spotty Catbird (still quite green, but with spots), and the White-Eared Catbird (dressed for success in a resplendent green cape)
The catbird is related to the showy bowerbird, but the male of this species doesn’t waste his time trying to impress a string of ladies with fancy nests. Instead, after a brief courtship where the male shows off some interesting things he found (a bit like show and tell at school), the catbirds pair off for life. They build themselves long-lived roomy, twiggy nests, where they can bring up their offspring and meow to each other in happiness.
The cassowary is a unique, large flightless bird, resembling a massive prehistoric turkey. The casque – a helmet-like structure over its bright and colourful neck and head – is an indication of the individual’s age and dominance. This bird is the 3rd largest in the world after ostriches and emus. Without the ability to fly, which is the most energy-expensive form of movement, cassowaries and their ratite relatives are able to grow much larger and run much faster.
Female cassowaries are bigger, stronger and slightly more brightly coloured than males. Adult females can grow to nearly 2 meters tall and weigh up to 60 kilograms.
Despite being large in size, they are fast and agile. Cassowary can run 30 miles per hour (50 kph) through thick forests and they are also capable swimmers.
They are shy and solitary animals that live in thick vegetation of rainforests in North Eastern Australia and New Guinea. At the same time, they are strong, fierce and unpredictable. The cassowary is classified as the most dangerous bird in the world. When threatened, they can execute a swift karate-kick with their powerful legs and dagger-like claws.
In tropical forests, Cassowary is a keystone species vital for dispersing seeds of large fruit bearing plants. Over 150 rainforest plants rely on them to propagate. Today, they are facing extinction. Only fewer than 1,000 cassowaries are left in the wild due to rapid development in their habitat. A number of projects have been initiated to save the cassowary.
Kookaburras are from the terrestrial kingfisher family native to Eastern Australia. They are a tree dwelling bird, between 28-42 cm in length with a cuddly appearance and thick bills (brown on top and cream below). Their feathers are predominantly brown and white. Some have bright blue markings on their wings.
The name “Kookaburra” is derived from the similar sounding word “guuguubarra” given by the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales. They named it for the distinctive laughing call that is contagious, stirring up joy that lives deep within us.
According to Aboriginal Lore, kookaburras’ chorus before dawn is a signal to the Sky People to light the great fire to generate the sun’s light that illuminates the sky and warms the earth. In another version, it is said that Kookaburra was created by the Keeper of the Sun to awaken birds, animals and humans with its laughter at dawn, and to bring joy into the world. As long as the kookaburra laughs to greet the morning, the sun will rise to herald a new day, and joy will be renewed.
Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree,
Merry merry king of the bush is he.
Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh, Kookaburra,
Gay your life must be!
Unlike its kingfisher relatives, the kookaburra is a woodland bird. They do not usually fish but are often seen resting high up in gum trees, using their keen eyesight to spot earthworms, lizards and other small reptiles on the ground, often through leaf litter. Snakes (common in the sub-tropics) form a big part of the diet for blue-winged kookaburras in north Australia. As they are large birds with big beaks, they are not as agile. They take most of their prey from the ground by hunting from a perch.
Kookaburras are intelligent and social. They live in close family groups. Both adults care for the young and their offspring from previous seasons are known to stay with their parents to help incubate the eggs, and feed and protect the chicks and fledglings before moving on to their nests.
“Birds are everywhere in our literature, a part, it seems, of our collective poetic imagination. If writing a beautiful line of poetry fills a poet’s heart with joy, imagine how that same poet’s soul must take flight at the sight of swallows soaring through the evening sky!”