Natural History

Headed from the hills to a town near you

They’re back. If you’re like me and live in one of Victoria’s bigger cities, chances are you might have noticed the influx of Pied Currawongs as the seasons have drifted through autumn and into winter. Maybe you haven’t seen them, but I’m sure you would have heard them even if you didn’t recognise the sound. A wailing ‘Kaaarrr-ooooooooo’ has been piercing the cold of suburban streets as these black and white wraiths slip through the trees on deep, lolling wing-beats, flashes of white in the outer-wing catching the eye with every flap.

Currawongs are intelligent birds – you need only watch them for a few moments to figure this out. Their burnt-yellow eyes are ever-vigilant as they slink from perch to perch. They are usually looking for foraging opportunities, and our cities and towns offer plenty to keep them well-fed. The sturdy bill that juts so prominently from their face enables them to eat a wide variety of foods. Infamous for their prowess of snatching recently hatched birds from the nest, currawongs often bear the scorn of sensitive bird watchers.

   
  
    
  
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  The piercing yellow eyes are arguably a Pied Currawong’s most striking feature.  Image: Rowan Mott

The piercing yellow eyes are arguably a Pied Currawong’s most striking feature. Image: Rowan Mott

But a quick glance at a freshly deposited Pied Currawong poo or regurgitated pellet will immediately tell you that they also include plant foods in the diet. The poos that have been left on my balcony rail recently are deep purple and contain numerous seeds, indicating these particular individuals have been feasting on a glut of berries from nearby shrubs. Currawongs also eat many insects, small reptiles and carrion. And if you have ever left a snack unattended in the backyard, you may have been unfortunate enough to discover that these plucky birds aren’t averse to helping themselves to an easy meal.

These two pellets regurgitated by Pied Currawongs on my balcony show that the diet of this species comprises far more than simply nestling birds. The one on the left is full of seeds and the one on the right contained something I couldn’t recognise.  Image: Rowan Mott

These two pellets regurgitated by Pied Currawongs on my balcony show that the diet of this species comprises far more than simply nestling birds. The one on the left is full of seeds and the one on the right contained something I couldn’t recognise. Image: Rowan Mott

So why are there so many Pied Currawongs around our built-up areas at the moment? Despite their varied diet, their primary food sources are all prone to seasonal fluctuations. As spring is the peak period of breeding for many small birds, when the seasons turn and the young birds all fledge, it becomes difficult for Pied Currawongs to find a nest-bound meal. Similarly, insects and reptiles becomes less active as the weather cools down, restricting access to these food sources for Pied Currawongs. Nowhere is the temperature change felt more acutely than in the high country and so, many Pied Currawongs that spent the summer at high elevation come flocking out to lower ground.

Pied Currawongs form large flocks during autumn and winter, unlike during the summer. No longer needing to defend a nesting territory, the territorial aggression breaks down, allowing many birds to socialise. These gregarious flocks make noisy, garrulous calls as they roam across the landscape rendering their presence almost unmissable. Numbers within these flocks may be buoyed by many young birds that left the nest just a few months before. These individuals look almost identical to the adults, but close inspection will reveal a tiny spot of yellow skin at the gape (corner) of the bill, and an overall greyer appearance. The parents care for their young for several months after fledging, but the young must quickly learn the intricacies of foraging if they are to survive through the long, lean winter.

Pied Currawongs are a familiar sight in many built-up areas of Victoria, particularly during winter when many individuals from higher altitudes descend to places with a more moderate climate.  Image: Rowan Mott

Pied Currawongs are a familiar sight in many built-up areas of Victoria, particularly during winter when many individuals from higher altitudes descend to places with a more moderate climate. Image: Rowan Mott

Young Pied Currawongs can be distinguished from adult birds by the presence of a small, fleshy, yellow gape of the bill.  Image: Rowan Mott

Young Pied Currawongs can be distinguished from adult birds by the presence of a small, fleshy, yellow gape of the bill. Image: Rowan Mott

Pied Currawongs aren’t the only currawongs to call Victorian cities and towns home. Keep an eye and ear open for Grey Currawongs. They are very similar in appearance to the Pied Currawong, but are cloaked in ashy-grey rather than black plumage. They also lack the white band on the upper side of the base of the tail (rump) that is present on a Pied Currawong.

Grey Currawongs can also be found in Victorian towns and cities. Although very similar to Pied Currawongs, they can be distinguished by their greyer plumage and lack of white on the rump.  Image: Rowan Mott

Grey Currawongs can also be found in Victorian towns and cities. Although very similar to Pied Currawongs, they can be distinguished by their greyer plumage and lack of white on the rump. Image: Rowan Mott

Although currawongs are much maligned for predating young birds, the magnitude of effect of this behaviour is likely a symptom of habitat change in our suburbs. Our urban environments are characterised by reduced vegetation cover, leaving nests of smaller birds exposed and easily discoverable to the sharp eyes of a currawong. But rather than denigrating currawongs as barbarians of the bird world, we should learn to appreciate what currawongs represent. Their successful integration into urban areas should be celebrated as a link to the natural world on our doorstep, while simultaneously reminding us that we need to be doing more to provide suitable habitat in our towns and cities for the smaller birds they prey on.


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Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth.


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

Australian magpies: the playful protectors

Beautiful, vicious, cheeky, scary, intelligent, psychopathic. These are some of the words people have used to describe the Australian Magpie since it was voted the 2017 Australian Bird Of The Year. Like its close contender, the White Ibis (or ‘bin chicken’), the magpie can elicit mixed emotions among its human neighbours. There are stories of befriending magpies in our backyards, of being welcomed home to Australia by a magpie’s song, and, of course, being swooped. So I decided to catch up with someone who spends most of his time learning about magpies, to ask him what he loves about them.

If you’re ever at a public park around Melbourne, you might see a man standing alone, tossing handfuls of shredded mozzarella cheese, while whistling the theme song from The X-Files. This behaviour might sound eccentric, at best, but it serves a purpose. Farley Connelly is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. He is researching how the problem-solving abilities of urban magpies compare to rural magpies, and whether they are affected by noise pollution. The cheese is used to train wild magpies to come when Connelly whistles, so that he can test their performance on various tasks.

Image: Rowan Mott

Image: Rowan Mott

I asked Connelly for some of his favourite ‘fun facts’ about magpies. These were his responses.

Magpies are playful

We tend to associate ‘play’ behaviour with mammals, such as our pet cats and dogs. But birds and other animals can play as well. Connelly says he often sees magpies playing with items like sticks, leaves and trash.

‘I’ve watched tug-of-war multiple times between juveniles, and between juveniles and adults.’

Magpies sing – and grunt

The magpie’s song is one of Australia’s most quintessential sounds. Many of us have become so familiar with this song that we pay it no notice. But for those who don’t hear this melody every day, it can have a profound emotional impact. A friend from overseas once described her initial reaction as: Is this heaven?

‘I was recording it and sending it to everyone back home,’ she told us.

The magpie’s song inspired their scientific name: Cracticus tibicen, where ‘tibicen’ means ‘piper’ or ‘flautist’. Magpies sing to reinforce their claim on their territory, mostly at dawn and dusk.

Image: Michelle Hall

Image: Michelle Hall

But while we are all familiar with the magpie’s melodious carolling, we are perhaps less familiar with their other calls. Magpies use many different calls, including grunting noises, to communicate.

‘I don’t think most people ever hear these,’ says Connelly, ‘but they do it consistently when they are near each other.’

Magpies sunbathe

If you’ve ever come across a magpie lying on its front, wings spread out to either side, don’t panic – it might just be sunbathing.

Connelly says magpies sunbathe even when it’s not cold outside – much like an Aussie human on a summer’s day. Unlike humans, though, magpies will take turns bathing in a specific patch of dirt.

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

Magpies recognise people

Magpies can remember and recognise human faces, and will treat people differently depending on whether they think they are a “threat”.

Unfortunately, humans are not quite as good at remembering and recognising magpie faces. To help him distinguish between different magpies, Connelly often needs to catch them and put a plastic identification band on their leg.

As you might imagine, the magpies are not too pleased about being caught and handled. Given that magpies can also hold grudges for a long time, this could cause major problems for Connelly’s future research.

To avoid this problem, Connelly – and other magpie researchers – must ensure that the magpie never sees who catches them. Connelly catches magpies in a trap that he controls from a distance, and keeps a hood over the magpie’s face while it is being handled. That way, the magpie doesn’t associate the person who caught them with the person who feeds them cheese and gets them to do problem-solving tasks.

By feeding the magpies, Connelly also wins their trust. As part of his research, Connelly monitors magpie nests, which might sound terrifying for anyone who has ever inadvertently crossed paths with a breeding magpie. But as the cheese-bringer, Connelly can climb right up to a magpie’s nest without being attacked.

For the rest of us, there is also a lesson here: be kind to the magpies in your neighbourhood, and they are more likely to be kind to you.

Magpies bow to their superiors

While magpies might be better known for their aggression, they also display extremely submissive behaviours.

‘Young birds and subordinates will bow down and shake their tail feathers when a dominant male or female is near,’ Connelly explains.

Magpies are caring parents

When people express their dislike of magpies, they usually refer to their swooping behaviour. Magpies are extremely protective of their nests and young, and will attack anyone that they think could be a threat.

While this can be terrifying – and occasionally causes serious injuries – it shows off another attribute of magpies: they are good parents.

Both parents care for their offspring. According to Connelly, males are much more aggressive when it comes to protection, although females help. Likewise, while females do more of the foraging and feeding, males also feed the young.

Image: Farley Connelly

Image: Farley Connelly

The protectiveness of these parents is not unwarranted. Only around 10% of chicks survive. Almost all swooping occurs when magpies have chicks in their nest, when the parents have real reason to fear predation. And while some magpies can be particularly aggressive towards humans, most never make contact when they swoop.

As with many species, not all magpies are raised by both a male and female parent either. In the last breeding season, Connelly saw two females nest together successfully.

‘Now that it has fledged, the nestling (Andy) is primarily cared for by one female,’ says Connelly, ‘but the other one is still around and feeding.’

You can find plenty of tips to avoid being swooped by magpies, and how to respond if you do. But still, if you’re ever feeling irritated about needing to adjust your route to school or work, remember – the magpies are just trying to keep their chicks safe.


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Anne Aulsebrook

Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, interested in conservation and the evolution of animal behaviour. One of her favourite books as a child was a field guide to Melbourne's spiders. She is currently researching how streetlights affect sleep in urban birds. 

You can find her on Twitter at @AnneAulsebrook.


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

A small penguin in a big pond

Imagine you’re sitting on the beach, contemplating the sun merging with the horizon before disappearing with lingering traces of orange and pink in surrounding clouds. You can feel the light wind on your face, enjoy the smell of the ocean and the sound of the waves relentlessly crashing against the shore. While you’re lost in your thoughts, little creatures close to shore are focussed on getting ready for the challenge they face every night: making it back to their burrow in one piece. Snapping out of your contemplation, you notice the groups of penguins - called rafts - that are forming in the water in front of you to benefit from safety in numbers. As they get closer, you hear their squawking calls, which will get louder and louder as the penguins come back ashore. Finally, darkness is upon them and they are one step closer to being home, safe and sound in their burrows. One brave penguin decides it’s time to go, carefully navigates a wave, gets carried back to shore and lands there. Others soon follow and form small groups that will start their nightly procession and march – or rather waddle – back to their homes. This is the universe Ken Stepnell’s book will immerse you in, the universe of the world’s smallest penguin, without the need to get wet.

Image: New Holland Publishers

Image: New Holland Publishers

Stepnell uses simple language and well-chosen illustrations to depict the life of these ‘perfect swimming machines’ in his book entitled Little Penguins: Exploring the Life of the World’s Smallest Penguin. Little Penguins are the only penguin species that lives and breeds on the southern coast of Australia, and they are also found across New Zealand. In fact, in both of these places, they attract quite a lot of tourists, as these are the only locations in the world where Little Penguins can be observed on their way back to their burrow after an active day at sea. They display remarkable adaptations to exploit the marine environment, but also to get by on land. The book is packed with interesting facts about their lives, and will satisfy the curiosity of anyone who wants to know more about these ‘good little divers’ – literally the meaning of Eudyptula, the genus in which Little Penguins are classified.

Stepnell starts by introducing the penguin family, which comprises 17 to 20 species of sea-going birds, depending on the classification used. These birds live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere and have evolved to live in very harsh environments, such as Antarctica. In his first chapter, Stepnell describes general features shared by these atypical creatures – birds that do not fly! – before introducing Little Penguins. Ever wondered if penguins have knees? Read this book to find out! 

The African Penguin - one of the other 17 to 20 penguin species.  Image: Elodie Camprasse

The African Penguin - one of the other 17 to 20 penguin species. Image: Elodie Camprasse

In the second chapter ‘Vital statistics’, Stepnell elaborates on the unique adaptations Little Penguins have developed to cope with their environment. In this part, the reader learns that Little Penguins have glands above their eyes to concentrate the ingested salt that will then be excreted through the nostrils; that they have a third eyelid to keep their eyes clean; and that their very rigid and streamlined flippers are the reasons why they can ‘fly underwater’ so gracefully. On land, however, they use their sturdy feet and sharp claws to walk and climb.

The third chapter, ‘The lives of little penguins’, describes crucial activities for Little Penguins such as feeding, travelling and moulting. Ever wondered how and when Little Penguins catch their dinner? While you have it easy and can simply drive to the supermarket and pick up whatever you fancy, Little Penguins face the challenge of finding mobile food in the immensity of the ocean. Relying on results from scientific studies, Stepnell tells the reader how they go about doing just that.

The fourth chapter, ‘The mating game’, is dedicated to the way Little Penguins do what is one of the most important things animals are programmed to do: pass on their genes to the next generation. Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Here, the reader learns about how male penguins build burrows and stand outside them, calling in the hope of impressing the ladies; how many eggs a pair can lay and when; how penguins manage to keep their eggs warm; and how the chicks are fed. Want to know how often penguins divorce? You’ll find the answer in this chapter. 

Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young.  Image: New Holland Publishers

Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Image: New Holland Publishers

If you want to know how often penguins divorce, then this book is for you.  Image: New Holland Publishers

If you want to know how often penguins divorce, then this book is for you. Image: New Holland Publishers

‘Threats and conservation’ focuses on the causes of population declines, which include natural and introduced predators, disturbances by humans, climate change, and pollution, to name but a few. Even though Little Penguins are not globally threatened, some populations have clearly been declining.

If Little Penguins has made you want to experience the life of these creatures for yourself and observe them in their natural environment, then read the last chapter of the book to find out where to go. Although giving an exhaustive list of suitable locations would be rather lengthy and was not the purpose of the book, the reader will find out about the most significant viewing opportunities throughout Australia and New Zealand.

There are various locations in Australia and New Zealand where people can admire these fascinating birds in their natural habitat.  Image: New Holland Publishers

There are various locations in Australia and New Zealand where people can admire these fascinating birds in their natural habitat. Image: New Holland Publishers

As a researcher studying penguins, I was excited to review this book and learn new facts. I would have liked to read more details on some of the adaptations described, as well as more results from the scientific literature with more up-to-date information. Nevertheless, Stepnell’s succinct style makes this book suitable for both adults and kids who want to find out more about the world’s smallest penguin.     

Purchase your copy of Little Penguins from New Holland Publishers.


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Elodie Camprasse

Elodie came to Australia where she recently completed a PhD in seabird ecology at Deakin University, after studying marine biology in Europe. She is passionate about the natural world and its protection. She is also a dive instructor and Emergency Response Operator at Wildlife Victoria.

You can find her on Twitter at @ECamprasse.


Banner image courtesy of JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Spider

This is a guest article by Lindy Price.

Towards the end of spring a young spider built a web close to my back door. She had striking colours and two pairs of exceptionally long front legs, perhaps twice as long as her back ones. She hung in her web upside down with her legs divided into four pairs, the front ones stretching out and down from either side of her abdomen. These long forelegs were strong and agile, quite different from the others, and were clearly relied upon to perform most functions, including keeping herself firmly attached to her web.

She was of course an orb web spider, but not like any I had ever seen before. This one had a preference for being permanently on display in the centre of her web; never moving, day or night, rain, hail or shine; totally exposed, and much larger than the common orb web spiders that frequented my garden. Research identified her as a golden orb weaver, (Nephila spp.) characterised by its impressive size, a habit of pairing the legs two by two, and the golden thread of its web. A special spider, so the Australian Museum website informed me, and one that I was apparently very lucky to have. Luck was not my first feeling, but I was awestruck and fascinated, if only morbidly, and due to a serious case of arachnophobia, I was way too frightened to do anything other than hope she would go away.

She grew and grew over the spring and summer and by the time we were getting into early autumn she was enormous - perhaps fifteen or sixteen centimetres across. She visibly expanded with each meal, of which there were many in any given day. There was a steady supply of honey bees and the occasional pair of much treasured blue-banded bees, much to my alarm, given my perpetual efforts to encourage them to my garden. Pleading with her to give them up in favour of flies got me nowhere. Such an attitude I recognised as discriminatory - speciesism even, no better than any other form of discrimination - but with no influence to change the status quo, I had no choice but to accept it. Bees were a favourite staple of her diet - but she didn’t discriminate.

She became so big that I was sure I would easily have had a heart attack if she had ever fallen on me. I quickly learnt to check, to assure myself that she was firmly fixed in the middle of her web before stepping outside; and never, ever, to disturb the branches of the bushes to which her web was tethered as she was prone to violently shaking her web in protest - and, eek, threatening to drop.

By late summer she had matured and changed her appearance, growing a becoming high-rise, silver back like an over-cooked muffin, and a matching pillbox hat on her head. The underneath of her abdomen, by contrast, had some fine stripes in shades of yellow and black tastefully set off with a touch of maroon, although this was very hard to see unless getting uncomfortably close. I was sure that she had had a little of that same maroon detailing on her knees at one stage, but some of these early subtleties seemed to have been replaced with a more elegant palette of black and white, like the elongated figurine of an Edwardian lady; although it must be said that by then, any pretence at camouflage was completely gone. She stood out, stark against a cloudless blue sky. 

The golden orb weaver,  Nephila edulis .  Image: John Tann, Wikimedia Commons

The golden orb weaver, Nephila edulis. Image: John Tann, Wikimedia Commons

Her paired front legs were impressive; legs of which any spider, I imagined, would be rightfully proud. As long as my fingers and strikingly marked, they were hairless, shiny and narrow, with two large, knobby knees per leg, and long, black, pointed feet. With astounding agility she wound up the flies and bees into neat little packages, and ate them just as quickly as she could drag them back to her dining area in the centre of her web—and she moved across that web with lightning speed. Fastidiously tidy, she constantly mended any holes in her web, quickly removing the continual build-up of unwanted leaves and small twigs left by the wind; dexterously unhooking them with her narrow feet, then dropping them to the ground.

The web itself was a regal affair: the central disk was meticulously built with a formulaic precision in gossamer thin, parallel gold threads - visible only when glinting at an angle to the sun. The outer area of her web, in contrast, was an untidy mess of long silver threads. Hung higgledy-piggledy in every direction, this arrangement seemed to provide a safety net for the protection of the inner sanctum. At the outer corners it was anchored with thick ropes attached to the climbing rose on one side and the Manchurian pear on the other - strong enough to tether a cruise liner.

Maintaining her position, she hung in her web. Regardless of the heat and blazing sun, pouring rain or howling winds, she never left her post, mending any holes as needed each morning. In the centre of the web, the golden orb, she assembled a longish line of seed-like bits, reserves of small packaged insects for overcast and low food days, and a partial cross of zigzagged heavy gauge silk over which she positioned herself in a cross formation. It seemed to disguise her in some way, perhaps making her spider-ish shape less recognisable to potential predators, or, as another theory, reflecting ultraviolet light to attract insects and deter and confuse the birds. Whatever it was, it worked.

Living so close to my back door, we watched each other’s every move, coming and going, inside and outside the kitchen. We came to know each other quite well, or at least, it seemed, as far as the familiarity of our respective movements went. Each morning, first thing, I would go out to check if she was still there, say good morning and give her a wave. She watched, only her eyes moving.

As the summer passed and I could see just how big and scary she was becoming, I was astonished at myself, at my changing attitude. Spiders have long been the bane of my life; a life-long, fully fledged, hysterical phobia. However I would not by then, any more than in the past, have wanted her to come near me - or, perish the thought, to touch me. But her predictable habits made things easier and less threatening, and hence I felt no need to have her removed or rendered homeless. Certainly any potential guilt was assuaged, along with the avoidance of any need for considering cold-blooded murder. I was well known for my fear of spiders with family and friends and they would no doubt have been astounded.

The spider Lindy fell in love with.  Image: Lindy Price

The spider Lindy fell in love with. Image: Lindy Price

One morning I went out to say good morning to find she was in the process of shedding her skin. She had managed to remove most overnight (while the birds were asleep), but her long front legs were awkward and slow to peel. Vulnerable now in broad daylight, she kept a low profile by moving little and not drawing attention to herself; waiting for the cover of darkness to try again. Unfortunately, when I went out the following morning she had completed the task, but two of her legs were missing on one side. It may have been some sort of projection on my part but I swear she was suffering from shock and was in pain from what had happened. She did not move for several days and her high-rise abdomen visibly shrank from lack of food. I worried how, now severely disabled, she would survive. How could she catch her food, how could she wind the flies and bees up and drag them back to the centre of her web? She was lopsided and having difficulty even staying in the web. Every puff of wind threatened to dislodge her.

It seemed to take her about a week to recover enough to try to catch prey again, but indeed she did. Her efforts, from there, to my mind, were nothing short of miraculous - a marvel of ingenuity and will. Again I am reminded in no uncertain terms of how in our human arrogance we underestimate every other living thing. And from that time on, I fell in love. My heart was captured, spun in silver thread.

Her ragged discarded skin hung from the bottom of her web for a about week; her first priority with her limited agility: food. I watched. Slowly, lopsided, she limped across the web to a fly caught and struggling. She held it with one front leg, and wound it in web by enlisting one of her short back ones, her grasp of the web, all the time, precarious. Struggling, she then very slowly began to drag it back across the web, pulling herself along by her only other front leg in a crooked, lopsided movement, dragging the fly with an unaccustomed and newly enlisted middle one.

She never re-grew her legs or regained her prior mobility but she did not starve. She simply did her best with what she had. She continued to mend the large rents in her web caused by the wind, remove unwanted leaves, restore the line of seeds in her camouflage system and see off the occasional attacking wasp.

Golden orb weaver.  Image: Caitlin Selleck

Golden orb weaver. Image: Caitlin Selleck

I was aware that her lifespan would not extend beyond the last of the warm weather. That past autumn had been unusually long and hot but several recent very cold nights had taken their toll and soon after she went missing from her web. She never hid and I knew her absence was final. It was a sad morning and I would miss her.

Over the next week or so the empty web grew ragged and then disintegrated, finally disappearing; the tree turned red and gold and lost its leaves - the very leaves that she had chosen to support her beautiful web. And with a sense of the inevitability of life’s losses, but sustained by the gifts we had shared, I got on with planning my upcoming trip - and hoped upon hope that she had seen fit to deposit some eggs somewhere safe for the next generation.


Lindy Price is a Melbourne based botanical artist, portrait painter and writer with a life-long interest in fauna (although not especially spiders), flora and conservation.


Banner image courtesy of Michael Podger from Unsplash.