Minstrels in Mallacoota


Painting of choughs "Preening feathers" by Neil Douglas

The choughs are the flautists (on pan flutes) in black, the currawongs are on the cymbals in their check suits and the magpies would fill in the complete orchestra, in festive black and white.

Choughs
When I first came to Mallacoota, in eastern Victoria, nearly 30 years ago my knowledge of native birds was rudimentary to say the least. The Kookaburra had impressed me mightily and I was aware of the exotic, colourful parrots. But nothing had prepared me for my first encounter with a 'troupe' of White-winged Choughs.

It was a sunny day on Karbeethong Hill. I was walking in the forest and heard an errie metallic hissing and spitting in some trees near a clearing. When I looked closer I saw a group of sooty black birds, about the size of Magpies, hopping in a constantly moving heap all over the tree while emitting that strange metallic shrieking noise.

In those days I was more into Greek mythology than Australian birds and these black, black birds hissing in the trees reminded me immediately of a group of Furies straight out of mythology; looking down at me with their bulging red eyes, whipping, wheeling and hissing.

The Furies are imaginary creatures, half woman and half bird with feathers made of metallic arrows. They shoot their enemies with these feathers.

The birds flew from their tree down to the grassy, sunny clearing and on their way they showed me their next trick. As they floated down, opening their wings, they turned into white-armed parachutists, then landed sooty black once more. Their folded wings show only black, but opened in flight the underside is pearly, shiny white.

On the ground the performance continued as they engaged in a ritual of football huddling; rubbing sides, running a little way to show their special tail-whippy gait, fluffing up to double size, whipping their wings, bulging their large red eyes even larger, and altogether showing behaviour I would have expected from a group of inebriated picnickers who were particularly fond of each other.

Next they fluted and whistled, gently and melodiously; all the time whipping, huddling, or running a short distance away but all the time revealing close family relationships.

Not all birds showed the red eyes, but all had long, down-curved bills, finer than Magpies, and spindly, long, black legs. I can't blame people who think they are seeing crows, but once you know, it is like comparing chalk with cheese (camembert?).

Builders' Apprentices
Much later I learned a few more intriguing details. They are family oriented birds, the red eyes develop over four years and, when red, show full maturity. Younger members have brown eyes. The slow maturity is not completely understood, but it is assumed that the nest building is very complicated and the young birds need a few years in helping the adults to master the art.

The nest is built high up in a branch of a gum tree. It is made of mud and quite large. A saddle of mud has to be draped over the branch and dried out and slowly the round nest is built. It ends up pudding-basin size, made of mud and fibre. Young ones help but are very inept - builders' apprentices.

The whole family group helps with the building. Only the mature female of the group lays her eggs, but everybody seems to quarrel about who can sit on the eggs, or whose turn it is. Everybody enthusiastically feeds the latest family member. One would expect a high success rate, but normally only one or two babies make it to 'apprentice' stage. Slow maturity, predation by Magpies which have a basically similar distribution and feeding pattern, destruction of habitat and the ease with which these birds can be shot, all play a part in making these creatures relatively rare.

White-winger Choughs are also called Seven Sisters, or Twelve Apostles. Easy to understand why if you watch them for a while. Being group birds they need to split up to claim new territory and they seem to count to 12 - a large troupe decides to break up into seven (sisters) and grows slowly towards their last supper (apostles).

Much later the Twelve Apostles came to visit Edna and me in our new house. They kept pecking at one particular window for weeks and Edna, being very fey and 100% Irish, explained to me that this would mean "a death in the family". Sure enough Flo Brady (Edna's mother) died shortly after their visit. She also was fey and Irish and I am still sure to this day that she visited me after her death and had a few words to say to me - but didn't confirm any wrong doing by the Choughs.

This winter (1993) we are blessed with at least five or six bands of these delightful creatures on Karbeethong Hill, cavorting and dancing their ritual in the closest family bonds I have seen anywhere except maybe in a posse of caterpillars marching in a heap to the next luscious gum leaf.

Pied Currawaongs or Jays
When autumn becomes serious and starts to blend into winter I always know that it is getting cold in the mountains of the Australian Alps. The early morning quiet is suddenly punctuated by a loud, clear, powerful clarion-call. The Pied Currawongs (Jays) have arrived for the winter.

I always imagine these birds in their lofty mountains looking around one day; shuddering and deciding it is time for their winter vacation. They drop from a particularly perpendicular rock, spread their wings, and glide all the way down, down to the warmer climate of the seashore. I envy their ease and I am glad that they think Mallacoota is warm enough in winter to give them a break from the snow and ice of the interior.

All species of currawongs have large, yellow eyes that seem to see everything clearly and express awareness and intellect. They have more white plumage than the Choughs and certainly could claim a better place in the Black and White Minstrel Show.

An American ornithologist studying in the Panamanian Rainforests noted that each bird species he taped had a special range of sounds that enabled it to penetrate its habitat by song. The more he looked at the phenomenon the more he marveled how wonderfully and precisely these birds had mastered the art of communication and song. He went to Puerto Rico and found the same perfection there. I am sure if he had taped our currawongs and analysed their voices he would have agreed that surely this is one of the clearest, mind-lifting songs uttered in winter on the eastern seashore. Maybe the currawong with his fierce looks might want to say that he has good things to bring to humans as well!

At the moment these birds are suffering from a bad reputation. They do eat fledglings of other bird species, are opportunistically carnivorous and can occur in large flocks. But of course lots of other birds could be accused of the same habits and be forgiven. I think of kookaburras, shrike-thrushes and magpies. When they again disperse in spring into their high mountain ranges they do not pack into large groups. Their predation would have to be called "Acts of Nature". Surely this is essential to their well being.

Circle of watchers
In Mallacoota I think I noticed a 'sentinel' system used by Jays. When we go out to feed a few magpies and choughs, there are no currawongs about; after some time one turns up and a few moments later a few more and a little later more and more. I can clearly see a line of command from high treetop to high treetop: currawongs watching their surroundings and each other. When one flies down to a possible feed the nearest circle of watchers notice this and fly to the first bird on the group and so on, as an ever-enlarging ring of watchers converges on the possible meal.

Most wild birds probably live in a state of almost constant hunger. Sleek looking birds do not show their emaciated state as would, say, a horse with ribs showing through the hide. They hide their misery, and if too long hungry still die fully feathered; albeit sadly light. Edna, through her upbringing in Mallacoota, could tell me that the call of the Jay was a sure sing of rain and when bursting out early in the morning, a sign of a glorious sunny day.

Magpies
There is no need to introduce these birds to anybody along the east coast. They have brown eyes that can look very penetratingly at you, especially if you are late with a routine feed. When they sit on your knee, have another look at their eyes; they have pretty, curved eyelashes.

And of course their fame is that glorious warbling. They would have to be the bandleader of the Minstrels. The choughs are the flautists (on pan flutes) in black, the currawongs are on the cymbals in their check suits and the magpies would fill in the complete orchestra, in festive black and white.

When native animals come and make friends it is always a great honour to me, as we are not very trustworthy chaps ourselves. I think of Blue Gropers around Gabo Island that showed me that they wanted Sea Urchins broken open for them and would wait at a particular ledge whenever I was diving there. Or Long-nosed Bandicoots that showed no fear of humans and cracked wheat noisily outside the Adobe Flats. Or curious Fur Seals at their colony on the Skerries just outside the Wingan Inlet. This unasked for, but wonderfully given trust, is something special and when broken, it hurts very deeply. I remember a holidaying scuba diver casually dropping a big Blue Groper onto the wharf. I felt a friend had been murdered. But what can one say? Or when 'junior' gleefully and with lots of gurgles chases a seagull or magpie around the backyard? Has he proud or silly parents?

Black birds with red, yellow or brown eyes are to many people sinister, crow-like and therefore bad; and this is sad. To me they are simply wonderful.

Peter Kurz
Mallacoota, Victoria.
October 1993