Curious Birds Of Australasia
( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
AUSTRALASIAN land birds, although they comprise between six and seven hundred different species—each of which is abundantly represented—and are of remarkable brilliance and beauty, are often dubbed uninteresting for it is only with considerable trouble that one can follow their movements ; and this the average observer does not care to bestow.
So marvelously does their colouring (even that of the parrots and cockatoos) match the grey-green foliage of the gum-trees, that even while one can hear them over-head, it is by no means easy to catch them with one's eye.
Some of the most interesting birds are purely nocturnal, and in the daylight even the large emu manages so effectually to hide itself that one seldom detects it in the bush or on the open plain until one is almost on the top of it, when off it goes at a pace that a well-mounted horseman finds it difficult to beat. They possess three toes (ostriches have but two). I think we associate Australia chiefly with kangaroos and emus. The latter are easily domesticated, but are very powerful, and at certain seasons they are dangerous.
Strolling one day in a small paddock, where. half a dozen were accustomed to be fed from my hand, and were usually most peaceable, to my surprise they all came running towards me in a threatening manner, looking very angry. I had forgotten—having been absent a little while—that it was their mating-time, and I suppose they mistook me for an intruder of their own species !
I slowly retreated backwards, but this did not pacify them, and they all simultaneously " went for me " with beaks and legs. The situation began to be serious, as there was no one near to help drive them off. Having a stout umbrella I contrived to open it suddenly, full in their faces, which considerably startled them and gave me a little time to get nearer the fence. But it was no good; they became still more furious, pounced upon my umbrella, and kicked it into shreds. In the meantime, however, I made my escape, with my light coat torn to pieces, and some rather nasty knocks and bruises on arms and shoulders.
Next in size to the emu is the cassowary, a stupid, quarrelsome bird, which, like an emu, cannot fly. Its feathers resemble bristles, and its fleshy neck appendages are of vivid colours. Nobody seems to care for cassowarries. They look old enough and uncanny enough to have been denizens of the Ark. I have noticed that in the London Zoo people stop to look, in a pitying kind of way, at the aged and melancholy specimen there, with its broken helmet, as if it were some kind of outlandish antediluvian.
Luckily for the cassowary, its flesh is uneatable except by the aborigines, who, no doubt, sometimes make a meal of it, as they would of anything. So massive and strong is it, and so violent in the breeding season, that it is not a pleasant acquisition in an aviary. Emus and cassowaries think nothing of swallowing the strangest of articles, such as pieces of iron and glass, fragments of brick and leather, and other indigestible trifles. It is recorded that once an emu died from swallowing a packet of tobacco.
Turkeys, wild or native, and excellent to eat, are merely bustards.
Australia is a land of handsome eagles and eagle-hawks. Shepherds detest them, because of the inroads they make upon their lambs, whose delicate flesh these raptorials too much appreciate. They are, for their sins, condemned to be poisoned with arsenic—rather a pity from a sentimental point of view. I have often come across their nests, usually on the summit of lofty dead trees. They are immense, composed of as many twigs and branches as would fill a wagon.
The coasts, rivers, and lakes swarm with wild-fowl, including the graceful black swan, whose beak appears to have been dipped in red sealing-wax.
Then there is a most amusing and sociable bird, called the native-companion--a great crane, four feet high, and very useful in waging deadly war against insects. Like the rest of its family, it indulges in the most ridiculous dancing movements with its long legs and in eccentric twistings of its bill. It has, also, a nasty habit of darting its beak — a sharp and unerring weapon at anything shiny, and thus bright-eyed children peering at them through the bars of aviaries have sometimes been deprived of their sight.
Cockatoos in their native fastnesses are interesting. But to get a chance of studying them you must set out very early in the morning, for they are intensely wary, and while taking their fill in a field of corn—of which they destroy much more than they eat—they place a sentinel on guard. If you can approach a flock without being seen, you will be amused by their playfulness and funny, discordant chatter. One would think that every topic of the antipodean day — the price of wool, the latest test match, the chances of much-needed rain, &c.—was under discussion, especially that of the continued and abhorred encroachment of man upon their domain, though as a matter of fact this would give them, as a satisfactory " set-off," a greater number of orchards and fields of grain.
There are several kinds of cockatoos. The great black, red-crested cockatoos, rarely seen in captivity; the sulphur-crested, the rose-coloured cockatoo, &c.— all alike in being noisy and tiresome, and in having beady black eyes devoid of any expression save that of astonishment.
That beautiful creature, the bower, or satin-bird, is seldom seen. Its plumage is like glossy black satin. Hence its alternative name. In the light its feathers have a play of colour similar to that of the raven. This extraordinary bird builds itself a kind of tunnel-nest and play-ground combined, and decorates it — it is composed of twigs — with feathers and any glittering thing it can get hold of.
The lyre-bird is well known for most travelers take home a set of the sixteen peculiar-formed tail-feathers, so like an ancient harp.
Many of the birds met with in the solitude and monotony of the interminable bush are of dull appearance; but cockatoos, parrots, piping-crows, and laughing-jackasses, are notable exceptions. These last-named-giant kingfishers of a lightish-brown, with blotches of pale blue on their wings—do not resort to water, and a fish diet is unknown to them. They live on snakes and other undesirable reptiles. At early morn, with the faintest glimmer of daylight, the stillness is broken by their extraordinary laughter, a kind of gurgling crescendo note, which greeting to the rising sun is given with such regularity that they have been called " the settler's clock."
These jackasses, with head-feathers erect, suggesting a woeful disregard of the amenities of brush and comb, sit, benevolent-looking and motionless, on some prominent branch, where with their short tails cocked up, they can be seen by all, for they are fearless of man. There they sit, solemn as an assemblage of pawky Scotch elders, until, without any apparent reason, when one least expects it, they give vent to their most comical guffaw.
I don't think the laughing jackass in the London Zoo has ever indulged in a genuine laugh. Probably the keeper who has charge of him could tell us; but the jack-ass, no doubt, finds it no laughing matter to live in a country, where for nine months in a year, there is hardly a sun, worth calling a sun, to greet.
Moreporks (or mopokes), the Australian nightjars, who sleep all day and hunt all night, before retiring to rest help at the matinées I have referred to, reiterating their cry of " More pork " (though the boobook owl is said to enunciate these words still more clearly).
No wonder the aborigines believe in ghosts, for as they sit by their fires after dark the bush is filled with mysterious sounds. High aloft, first in one place, then another, a species of curlew sobs in the most weird manner, while owls contribute their blood-curdling hoots, night animals grunt and squeak in startling fashion, and from the water-holes bull-frogs keep up an incessant accompaniment of deep croaking.
The morning concerts, begun by the laughing-jackasses, is joined in by the leading tenors, the magpies or piping-crows, with their flute-like notes. They, like the jackasses, are strictly protected by law in Australia.
Mrs. Magpie builds fearlessly, close to the houses; but if any one goes too near her little home, down swoops Mr. Magpie in a great state of excitement, and so bold is he that I have seen him rush at a lady innocently riding by, and furiously peck at her hat.
Australian magpies are born mimics, and can be taught to pipe simple tunes very correctly, but they invariably fail to learn the last note, for which they substitute their own enchanting whistle.
I had one of these birds, the most comical of its kind, and up to every trick. It would run away from me, and when I caught it up would throw itself on its back and pretend to be dead when I tickled it. Jack could sing ---
"Merrily danced the Quaker's wife,
spendidly, all but the final note. He was a good-tempered bird, and a universal favourite, and would never use his formidable, sharp beak, even under the dire provocation of being carried in people's arms like a kitten. No ! after such an insult he would simply retire to some inaccessible place, and there spend an hour in straightening his sadly ruffled feathers.
Poor Jack ! I had to take leave of him, and so fond of me had he become that I am sure, if he could, he 'would have shed tears when we said our last farewell... .
A bird that is a great nuisance to sportsmen in the bush, is the spur-winged plover, called the alarm-bird, always alert, and, on the slightest pretext, uttering its piercing cry, which, like that of the English jay, warns all the game round about.
Delightful beauties are parrakeets. Imagine a cloud-less day, with the thermometer anything you like over 85 degrees, and, as you ride through the bush, perspiring at every pore, and envying the folk at home under their leaden-grey sky, you suddenly hear a scream from the gum-trees, whose heads tower one hundred feet above you, and a mass of vivid colour darts by like a flash of lightning ! It is a flock of parrots and parrakeets. Presently, from the ground rise "bujerigars," known to us as " love-birds," pretty little things with tails as long as those of the pheasant, whom they are sometimes called after, their flesh having a gamey taste.
There are also green leeks (small parrots good to eat), rosellas, and lories— all of the gayest plumage — haunting the gum-trees.
The white gum and the wattle (mimosa) in their full blossom, which bear a substratum of honey, are great favourites with parrots, every branch swarming with them.
Standing on one's head to read is nothing to the feats performed by these born gymnasts, who can feed upside down, holding on to a branch with one claw, and are at ease in every conceivable attitude.
Pigeons are very numerous in Australaisa, nearly one-half of the known species being found exclusively in that great continent and in the islands to the north of it. They range in size from the giant crowned-pigeon of New Guinea to the little turtle-dove, and include the well-known wonga-wonga and the terrestrial bronze-wing (the bronze only showing in certain lights), all of them excellent eating. The bronze-wing can travel sixty miles an hour.
Besides the birds I have mentioned, there are many lovely little creatures, some called after the English birds they are supposed to resemble. Robins there are, interesting and lively, with the orthodox red breasts, but with feeble voices. There are magpie-larks marked with black and white, whose cup-shaped nests of mud are beautifully built; fire-tails peculiar to Tasmania; native sparrows with red markings on their heads; the emu-wren, the queerest and most graceful mite, the tail deco-rated with five feathers absurdly long for its size; and fig-eaters, small, delicately shaped birds, who delight in ripe figs, the insides of which they completely hollow out, leaving only the rind, but so intact does the fig still look that it is only after the human fig-lover has gone to much trouble to get it from the top of the tree (which grows to a great size in Australia) that he finds, to his disgust, it is nothing but a hollow case.
Minahs — a kind of starling with a curious white frill at the back of their heads, giving them the appearance of having been badly shaved—have been introduced from India, and are to be seen in every town where there is grass, hunting for insects. Like starlings, they are noisy, lively, and amusing.
Sparrows, alas ! have, like other British birds, been acclimated, and curses loud and deep are bestowed upon the memory of the enthusiastic gentleman (I knew him well) who introduced these nuisances, the indictment against them being that they prefer cereals and the buds of fruit-trees to the insects they were brought over to destroy.
New Zealand has acclimated many English birds, as it possesses few of its own, those few, however, being peculiar and wonderful. There is a handsome darkish parrot, with long and formidable beak which, though not less innocent-looking than most parrots, is an atrocious murderer. By some chance he, or one of his ancestors, discovered, when hopping about, perhaps, at some slaughter-house, that mutton fat and sheep's kidneys are good eating. Ever since, whenever he has the chance, he pounces upon a stray sheep, tears open its back, extracts the tidbit and leaves the poor creature to die in agony. So the keah, or " kaka," as he is called (his name should be " wolf ") finds every man's hand against him. New Zealand is, ornithologically, a land of mystery. It owns the apteryx, a seeming " freak," with legs utterly disproportionate to its small body. It looks like a bloated woodcock or wingless curlew, and lays eggs as large as a swan's. Being strictly nocturnal, it is seldom seen, but if by chance run to earth in the day-time, its temper is roused, and it spits and scratches like a cat.
One other bird (though I have never known it in the flesh) I must mention before I have done with antipodean feathered life. I refer to the Moa, extinct (if indeed it be extinct) so recently that its bones have been discovered full of gelatine. Imagine yourself an ardent ornithologist, alone in the grand forests, surrounded by mountains covered with tree-ferns and giant pines, suddenly confronted by a wingless bird, twelve feet high, looking like a three-toed ostrich with a large spur, and with legs thicker than those of a horse, who solemnly, in its own language, asks of you, "Where is that egg you have stolen from me? " the said egg being about 1 foot 3 inches long, with a capacity of over a gallon —i.e., sixty-four times greater than that of a hen's egg.
Yet this egg is small compared with that of its defunct relative, the epiornis of Madagascar, which held double the quantity.
An average fowl's egg, it may be observed, is 1 inch by 1 1/8 inch and holds not quite half a gill !