Put a bird on it! 10 reasons you should become a birdwatcher

Bill Oddie is renowned for it. Jonathan Franzen creates controversy around it.

Bill Bailey devotes entire comedy and TV shows to his love of it.

tawny frogmouth

Tawny frogmouths – birds worth watching, if you can find them in the first place.

Bird watching is undergoing a sort of renaissance, with paid up members of bird-loving organizations on the rise in Australia and beyond. I think these newly-minted birdos are onto something – here’s why you should consider joining them:

  1. You can do it anywhere. From the depths of the concrete jungle to the outermost offshore island, look around you for long enough, and eventually, you’ll see a bird. Urban areas might not provide the most exciting array of birds to ogle, but don’t write them off as possible bird watching locations. I’ve done some of my best birding, martini in one hand, binoculars in the other, propped on the balcony at someone else’s house. Which leads me to…
  1. The refreshments. With hobbit-like enthusiasm, seasoned birdos tend to conduct their bird watching sorties fully kitted out with vintage thermoses and a delightful array of home-baked goods. Take a break from squinting through your binoculars with a nice cuppa and a slice of Aunty Vera’s prize-winning fruitcake, or impress your new friends with your latest chia choc-chip cookie recipe.
  1. Location, location, location! Bird watching provides a great excuse to take impromptu trips to exotic locations, on the premise of spotting some rare vagrant bird rumoured to have once considered landing there. Travelled halfway across the country, yet failed to bag your bird? Who cares? You’re at a scenic sewage treatment plant in Alice Springs!
  1. The fashion is fabulous, dahling. Whether you have a penchant for pockets, or a taste for tweed, there’s a practical yet flattering bird watching look to suit you. Skinny jeans aside, there’s actually quite an overlap between hipster fashion and trad bird watching attire, and many older birdos, both male and female, sport impressive, stroke-worthy facial hair. Leather elbow pads, anyone?
  1. The romance, and all it may lead to. Bird watching offers erotically charged opportunities unrivalled by any hookup app. Romantic moments in secluded bird hides. Skin brushing against skin as binoculars are passed from hand to trembling hand, as you watch sensual dance of the Brolgas, or perhaps admire the slightly earthier courtship rituals of the Musk Duck. You won’t be getting any of that action on Tinder.
OBP v Firetail

Exceedingly rare or common as the proverbial – both orange-bellied parrots and beautiful firetails are both worth a look.

  1. Cheap thrills for the avid collector. Ever rummaged through a vintage op-shop and unearthed a fantastic collectors’ piece, only to have your heart stop when you saw its price tag? Birds are free, man.
  1. Bird watching lets you say ridiculous things with a straight face. See a great pair of Boobies the other day? Tell all your friends! Desperate for a bit of Hairy Woodpecker action, or perhaps lusting after a Fluffy-backed Tit Babbler? Don’t be ashamed to put that out there. Bonus: many of these entertaining bird monikers double as potential insults. Try calling someone a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, or an Agile Tit Tyrant, and see if they mistake your intentions.
  1. On the topic of outrageousness, birds provide an ongoing source of anecdotes, allowing you to indulge in a spot of scandalous gossip with limited social repercussions. Entertain your friends with titillating stories of the Kardashian-esque sex lives of fairy wrens, the stand-over tactics of the cuckoo mafia, or the brain-munching antics of zombie tits!
  1. Bird watching is a part of human nature. As soon as human children first stumble to their feet, they are possessed of a deep-seated need to chase seagulls, in the apparent hope of stuffing them into their mouths for further analysis. While most of us outgrow the mouth-stuffing bit, our instinctive fascination with birds remains. Who are you to deny biology?
  1. It’s actually quite fun. But don’t tell everyone – they’ll all want a piece of it.

Disclosure statement: The author does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any birds that would benefit from this article.Firetails Melaleuca

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There cannot be ravens here

Part 9 of the Spooky black birds of SoHo series, for my #AnimalMOOC Field Note – expedition to urban West Hobart

There cannot be ravens here.

I say this because of this tree:

IMG_5284It is a persimmon, larger than, but not dissimilar to the one growing next door in my neighbours yard, which the local corvids were observed to strip.  It is un-netted, and covered in a glorious array of sunburst coloured fruit.

I’ve never seen a raven in the centre of town, except perhaps flying overhead.  Town central is more the domain of weedy birds, like the introduced sparrows, starlings, and blackbirds.

Ravens like hanging around  human landscapes, eating the treats we have thoughtfully provided for them, but apparently, not in the middle of our small city.  Is this a function of the distance to the nearest forest perhaps?  Or do the potential costs of negative interactions with humans potentially outweigh the benefits of this extra food bounty.

Tiger Hut, Liawenee, Tasmania’s Central Highlands – snow! ravens! roadkill!

Part 8 of the Spooky black birds of SoHo series, for my #AnimalMOOC Field Notes.

I’m in the snow – wooooo!

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We’re up at Tiger Hut, and while everyone else busies themselves attempting to brain one another with balls of crunchy ice, I’ve been wandering around in the snow and stalking wildlife.

Even here, in the snow, the corvids are still active, but you see them mostly on the roads where the dead things are.  Every dead marsupial body on the road up was crowned by a ravenous raven, indelicately partaking of their juicy entrails.

You rarely see ravens hit on the roads here, unless they are babies.  People love to talk about their understanding of road rules – they do indeed appear to just cross over the white line in the middle of the road as you approach them, before moving back to the roadkill in your lane once the car has passed them safely by.

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If you look very carefully, you’ll see a raven hopping off the road to the right hand side – honest!

 

Birds with altitude – seagulls vs. ravens in the skies of SoHo

Part 7 of the Spooky black birds of SoHo series, for my #AnimalMOOC Field Notes.

Walking into work the other day, I thought I’d swing by the forested rivulet area to see if there were many ravens about. Unfortunately, there weren’t, but I did see a lot of them flying overhead to the tip, presumably.

I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that ravens and seagulls seem to occupy different airspace over SoHo.  The seagulls soar rather high up, while the ravens traverse the area much lower down.  I’m thinking this is because while the seagulls are just commuting to a known food source (the tip), ravens are constantly on the scavenge for tasty bits of roadkill, stray sandwiches etc., and that in flying lower, they are more likely to spot tasty tidbits at ground level.  I think this would be an interesting thing to potentially study for my field notes assignment.

I passed the Cascade Brewery on the way down too – apparently, forest ravens have a field day here when the big apple bins full of fruit are brought in for the cider brewing and apple juice production – unlimited access to apples is apparently a big plus if you’re a corvid.

Cascade Brewery - those big wooden boxes are apple crates

Cascade Brewery – those big wooden boxes are apple crates

 

Word of the day – Hemerophile

Part 6 of the Spooky black birds of SoHo series, for my #AnimalMOOC Field Notes.

I learnt the word “hemerophile” from this other entertaining #AnimalMOOC corvids blog today.

Animals that are hemerophiles benefit from living within the cultural landscapes that humans have created.  Ravens certainly fall into this category.  Whether it’s raiding our fruit trees, eating our unwatched sandwiches, or cleaning up after our BBQ’s, they are more than happy to take advantage of humanity’s generosity when it comes to incidental food provision.  Today’s raven falls squarely within the hemerophile definition, cleaning up something slightly gorier than your average sandwich.

Yesterday morning in SoHo, it was proper wet.  After a misty start to the morning, the rain began in earnest, slamming down on the deck, grass and trees in a way which made me rather reticent to leave the house to hunt ravens.  Luckily, this time I didn’t have to.

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During a brief, sunny period, an adult raven alighted on the grass at the end of my driveway (conveniently visible from my bedroom), and appeared to start tearing a piece of local marsupial to bits.  I snatched my binoculars, and propped up on the window sill to watch it.

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At first, I thought the raven had acquired the leg of some kind of marsupial, probably a pademelon by the size of it, which it had firmly pinned under its foot.  There are a lot of pademelons around here, and unfortunately, they are often victims of late night drivers.

Most of the fur seemed to still be intact, but the bird was busily removing it, and stripping bits of flesh and sinew from underneath.  I took some crappy photos with my phone, and then did what I assume the professionals do – sent someone else out with a real camera to take some better pics.  The photos below are courtesy of my partner (who informs me that he was using an inappropriate lens for the job).

Ravens (1 of 1)-2

Closer inspection revealed that it was not actually roadkill that the raven was eating, but the body of the very large rat my partner had caught in our backyard trap, and then thrown into the bush.  Happily for the raven, it had found the body of the rodent duck food thief, and was making a rather gory meal of it.

 


Ravens (1 of 1)-3
Unfortunately, the raven was not pleased with my partner’s paparazzo efforts, and after only a moment or two, picked up its dead rodent and flew away.  Not before we got a few, slightly-better-than-average photos of it though!

Ravens (1 of 1)

Baby ravens – despite our best hopes, not actually very cute at all…

Part 5 of the Spooky black birds of SoHo series, for my #AnimalMOOC Field Notes.

Today, a friend of mine sent me a link to a picture of a baby “raven”.  Although adorable, a raven it is not.

Adorable, but not a raven baby.

Adorable, but not a raven baby.

I knew this only because I’d seen this picture before, on this great corvid blog, which showed a couple of pictures of juvenile birds that are commonly mis-ID’d as baby ravens or crows.

From this blog, I learnt a key difference between baby corvids, and babies of the cute, fluffy variety for which they’d been mistaken.  The latter, cute fluffies are precocial baby birds – that is, they are born with feathers, able to walk about with their eyes open almost immediately, and able to find their own food – baby chickens and ducks fall into this category.

Baby ravens, on the other hand, are altricial, and are charmingly described by the Corvid Blog as “naked little jelly-bean monsters”.  They are born with their eyes closed, rely on their parents to feed them for up to a year, and when they finally leave  the nest, are as big or sometimes larger than the parents that reared them.  And they’re really not that traditionally aesthetically pleasing.

So the next time you see a cute little fluffy black bird all perky, bright-eyed and alert, know that while adorable it may be, a corvid it is not.

The spooky black birds of SoHo (Part 4) – too cold for corvids?

#AnimalMOOC Field Notes, Part 4: The chilly edition – in which the birds hide from me, and I am too cold and sooky to chase them down.

Yesterday morning when I woke up, the mountain was dusted with snow.

snowy mountain

Mount Wellington, or kunanyi in a local indigenous language, looms over large over the town and peoples of Hobart, physically and sometimes metaphorically. In Hobart, the Mountain is the centre of all things –  defining topographical feature, super-sized weather vane, and reminder that our small city is tied directly to the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, by geology and by vegetation.  And when there is snow on the Mountain, Hobart is cold.

Forest ravens and currawongs abound in Tasmania’s mountain regions.  The currawongs in particular are drawn to areas inhabited by unwary backpackers, and will wait, patiently, beady-eyed,  for the moment when a sandwich is left unwatched, a pack left unattended.  I’ve had a bushwalking friend tell of a currawong encounter at a track junction on the well-travelled Overland Track. Other bushwalkers had foolishly left their hiking packs, zips exposed, trailside, as they bagged a nearby peak.  My friend had arrived to a currawong-facilitated shambles of torn food packaging, strewn socks and ravaged apples, just before the pack owners returned, who promptly accused him of this wanton vandalism.  He protested his innocence, pointing out that if he’d been rifling through their packs, he would have taken more than their muesli bars.  He told them about the currawongs, but they refused to believe him.

If they’d done even a little research, they’d have discovered that currawongs in high-traffic bushwalking areas are renowned for their cunning ways with pack zips – they grab onto the zip tabs with their strong beaks and yank open bags, to get at the tasty trail mix within.  They are very naughty birds!

In my street, they show similar guile in dealing with netted fruit trees.

In yesterday’s chill, there seemed to be fewer ravens around in the forest across the road – although I  could hear them about, I struggled to set eyes on them.  Then I remembered my neighbours’ persimmon tree.  I wandered next door to find that the birds had completely stripped the netted tree – they’d simply unpicked a bit of the netting and pushed their way in, scoffing all of the fruit, to my neighbours’ mild annoyance.  But none were to be found in their yard today, probably because they’d eaten everything that was of any interest.

I suspect the colder weather has changed their distribution, which would be interesting to look into.

Black currawongs are known to be altitudinally nomadic, moving down hill in winter, and returning to the mountains as spring returns.  They turned up here a few months back in numbers I hadn’t seen, possibly moving to take advantage of better food sources in the lower, warmer, urban areas.

Like many non-traditionally-aesthetically-pleasing, common animals, the Forest Raven is relatively little studied, and many basic details of its behaviour and ecology are not necessarily known.  It’s thought that mated pairs hold permanent territories of around 40 hectares, but this is likely to vary with availability of food resources.  Non-breeding birds hang out in flocks of about 30-40 birds, with groups swelling to mobs of up to 100 over Tasmanian winter.

Later in the afternoon, I walked up the mountain a little, looking for them in the roadside forest tracts, but once again, could hear, but not see them.  I suspect that the birds who are normally in the forest across the road from my house have probably moved en masse to the tip, and are propped up on the nice warm compost piles picking at the dinosaur bones.  But it’s far too chilly for me to go and test this hypothesis 😉

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All of the details of bird ecology in this post are taken from Pizzey and Knight, 2010. The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (8th edition). HarperCollinsPublishers Australia Pty Limited.