The Australian Magpie: A bird that has never been just black and white (re-issue).

Just prior to Melbourne’s 6th lockdown I was fortunate to explore the Mallee country of Victoria’s North West. The landscapes, birds and wildlife are well-worth driving several hours to get there. And the locals are amongst the friendliest and most hospitable people that you will come across in the Australian bush. One gentleman was giving me the lay of the land, pre-empting the year’s weather up that way.

‘We’re going to have an early Spring’ he told me without an ounce of doubt. He was talking about crops, temperatures and other indicators that he has become attuned to over his decades. The coming of Spring can mean many different things to different people. For me, my thoughts turn to that of The Australian Magpie, its reputation and its habits.

The Guardian Australia held its inaugural poll for Australia’s favourite bird in 2017. The Australian Magpie won that poll, highlighting its place in our national consciousness. The Australian Magpie is more than just a bird to Australians. Families of them are a familiar sight on the front or back lawn. People relate to their social behaviour and family feeding sessions. And their call – or caroling – is a quintessential Australian sound. Many people even develop a bond with the Australian Magpies that patrol the lawn and feel compelled to feed their wild avian residents.

So isn’t it strange that a bird that is widely revered is labeled as a public enemy during Spring? I write this post as much of Australia is starting to move into what we know as ‘Swooping Season’. Each year, largely during Spring, Australian Magpies will attack people who they perceive to be a threat within their nesting territory. The guilty birds are the males of the species and it is estimated that only 10% of male Australian Magpies will swoop. People have genuine fear of the birds during this period, particularly cyclists and joggers. The proportion of swooping birds may well be small but they have been capable of real terror. People have suffered terrible facial injuries, lost eyesight and, tragically, there have even been fatalities caused by the swooping of Australian Magpies. If you are interested in finding out how seriously people take Swooping Season please visit the Magpie Alert web site.

For a bird that is visually Black and White the Australian Magpie is a bird whose life and history is very grey. I have been using the common name of Australian Magpie, which differentiates it from the true Magpie. What do I mean True Magpie? Well, strap yourself in and try to keep up as things might get a little weird. But, the reality of what we commonly refer to as a Magpie here in Australia isn’t a Magpie at all! See, I told you that it’s a little weird.

The misnomer began when Europeans arrived in Australia, noting that their new country had a bird species that was black and white in colour just like the widespread and common Eurasian Magpie.The Eurasian Magpie is a species within the Corvidae Family of birds (over 120 species). To simplify this in taxonomy terms, the Corvidae Family is where you will find bird species such as Crows, Ravens and Jays. The genus Pica comprises the world’s four true Magpies that are spread across Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa.

​The Australian Magpie belongs to the Artamidae Family of birds (24 species). This family includes Currawongs, Butcherbirds and Woodswallows. The Family name of Artamidae comes from Greek and Latin meaning Butcher.

The Australian Magpie’s identity was always going to be confusing. The first European to have described and named the bird was the famed British Ornithologist John Latham in 1801. Latham named the bird as Coracias tibicen – the genus Coracias containing Rollers within the family group Coraciidae. While one can see comparisons with Corvid species from within the Corvidae Family, Coraciidae includes groups such as Bee-eaters and Kingfishers. The very name of Roller also indicates the bird displays acrobatics during courtship or territorial disputes – none of which is the case with the Australian Magpie. For much of the 20th Century the Australian Magpie was considered three separate species, depending on which part of the country you lived in.

There have been other Common Names that the Australian Magpie has had since the bird was discovered by the British. These include Piper, Piping Roller, Piping Shrike, Piping Crow-shrike, Organ Bird, Singing White Crow and Maggie (a name still commonly referred to today).

As if the Australian Magpie isn’t confusing and confused enough there is the Magpie-Lark, a bird often seen in the same circles as the Magpie. If you didn’t know any better you could assume that this smaller bird is a juvenile version of the Magpie. But, despite its name, this bird is neither Magpie…nor Lark. The Magpie-lark is one of only two species within its genus – the other being the Torrent-Lark of Papua New Guinea.

Aside from sharing the Magpies’ colour scheme, the Magpie-Lark also shares a list of fascinating Common Names, many of them still commonly used. It’s not unusual to hear this bird being referred to as Peewee or Mudlark. One of its early names was Pied Grallina while some people in the state of South Australia would know it as a Murray Magpie or Piping Shrike – also an early name of the Australian Magpie just to confuse matters.

As for the Australian Magpie, we maintain have an uneasy relationship throughout our Spring months. And then we return to a truce where we forget about the swooping and enjoy their calls, behaviours and interactions…until the return of Swooping Season again next year.

‘It’s a nice name, but what does it mean?’

Have you ever noticed when you wander around a zoo or botanic garden that the animal or plant you’re looking at has two names? You may see a sign telling you that you’re standing underneath the canopy of a River Red Gum tree, but the same sign also tells you that you’re also standing under a Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If your curiosity goes beyond how beautiful the tree is it may prompt you to wonder what that secondary name is all about.

While those secondary names – known as binomial or scientific names – may seem challenging at first, you can be rewarded if you unravel them. Deconstructing a scientific name can unravel history and quirkiness that gives context to the time and events when European naturalists studied and described elements of our natural world. In this series we will deconstruct some of those strange names and find out that there is often quite a story – or at least a fascinating translation – behind them.

Podargus strigoides Tawny Frogmouth.

In this episode of the series I am being a little self-indulgent as the subject matter is my favourite bird species, The Tawny Frogmouth. And it’s not only my favourite bird. There are over 10,000 species of birds throughout the world and the Tawny Frogmouth is the world’s ‘most Instagrammable bird’. This curious-looking bird can be a master of camoflage. Tawny Frogmouths are surprisingly common, but seldomly noticed by most people. They are active at night, but stationary during the day blending into their tree roost.

A rather confusing bird.

For many of those who do have the pleasure of sighting this enigmatic bird their initial reaction is ‘oh, look, it’s an owl!’ For those of us with some knowledge of birds the automatic response is ‘no, it’s not an owl…it’s related to the Nightjar family’. The below exchange on a recent Facebook post is quite typical of the regular confusion:

Tawny Frogmouth meme photo
Tawny Frogmouth owl meme: unknown source.

Person A: ‘Is this beautiful owl a Tawny?’

Person B: ‘Tawny Frogmouth. A night bird, but not related to owls’.

Person C: ‘As mentioned above. It is a Tawny Frogmouth- which is in its own family, more closely related to the Nightjars.’ 

Person D: ‘Definitely not an owl. Definitely a Tawny Frogmouth from the Nightjar family.’

            Person C: ‘Nope, from the frogmouth family.’

Person D: ‘A beautiful nightjar, not an owl.’

            Person E: ‘While they are closely related with Nightjars, the Frogmouth are actually in their own family Podargus.’

As you can see, it’s a discussion that brings out the inner pedant in birdwatchers. The meme below is good symbolism of that pedantry.

Why all the confusion?

Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus…neither an Owl, nor Nightjar…or Frogmouth for that matter.

Perhaps the regular innacurate naming of the Tawny Frogmouth can be excused. An earlier common name of the bird was in fact Frogmouth Owl. There are similarities in size and shape between a Tawny Frogmouth and a Boobook Owl, which probably doesn’t help with identification issues.

The modern common name of the species is fairly literal and descriptive. Tawny refers to the grey/brown colour while it’s broad, gaping mouth is reminiscent of that of an amphibian species.

The scientific name of Podargus strigoides was given by the famed ornithologist John Latham in 1801. The bird was the first of the three species within the Podargus genus to be described by an ornithologist. As you will see below, there is quite some detail within the two words that comprise the bird’s name. As detailed as it is, the name probably doesn’t do much to clarify the ongoing confusion with owls.

A bird with origins in myths and legends?

So let’s break it all down to try make some sense of all this: Pod-argus strig-oides:

Pod: Greek for foot. Think podiatry, pertaining to feet.

Podargus: relating to the medical term Podagra. Podagra is the medical condition of Gout, relating to inflammation or arthritis of the foot. For the purpose of birds within the Podargus genus it translates to ‘weak-footed’.

Strig: derived from the ancient Greek and Latin ‘Strix’. In ancient mythology, the Strix (plural Striges) had a number of incarnations throughout different regions of Europe. These interpretations usually involve demons who would take the form of or transform into owls or owl-like creatures. These myths usually involved the demons – or witches – being women. And they would often feast on livers and other internal organs. If you’re interested in more reading on this please look up Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals by John Cuthbert Lawson, 1910.

The term Strix would be carried across these ancient times of folklore and would be applied to actual owls. The largest family of owls, Strigidae, are also known as ‘True Owls’.

Great Grey Owl, Strix nebulosa (a ‘true owl’)

Oides: Ancient Greek meaning likeness or resembles

How does this relate to our beloved Tawny Frogmouth?

We have deconstructed the scientific name of the Tawny Frogmouth, now let’s translate that deconstruction.

Gout tends to be a medical condition that affects the feet of people who drink too much beer or eat too much red meat and are generally overweight. While I have seen some large Tawny Frogmouths I am not aware of any whom drink any amount of alcohol. Their diet is certainly carnivorous, but I don’t suspect them of overeating red meat. Tawny Frogmouths are considered to be ‘weak-footed’ though.

Their feet give them great balance and stability for roosting over many hours. But Tawny Frogmouth’s feet are not strong enough to catch or tear at prey. They use that broad mouth to catch their prey in flight or as the prey passes the bird’s roost.

The species name of strigoides simply translates to ‘like Striges’, effectively ‘like an owl’. The Tawny Frogmouth’s scientific name of Podargus strigoides means a bird that has weak feet and is ‘like an owl’… but it’s not an owl of course!

The Joy of Birds: My first time

Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua

Discovering birdwatching and the open road of new species is an exciting and addictive past-time. It’s still exciting to find a new bird of course, but early on just about every species is a new discovery. The world of the internet has made it much easier to stay on the pulse of significant bird sightings. I’d keep an eye on various forums and birdwatching feeds for reports of anything that I was yet to encounter and was reasonably close. Being easy to find wasn’t always part of the deal, but sometimes you would be fortunate to have clues to a fairly finite area.

My first sighting of a Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) couldn’t have been much easier back on the 27th of May, 2009. It happened to have been living in a tree in Flagstaff Gardens, one of central Melbourne’s parks where office workers would have lunch or undertake physical training. I commenced a game of find the owl amongst the dense Autumn foliage of the giant Elm trees. Although my photographic equipment was limited to a 300mm kit lens it still enabled me to get a view of this wonder of nature. Here it was, a silent killer living in the middle of the city while hundreds of people would walk directly underneath unaware that they were being watched. But the humans need not worry. Powerful Owls do not have humans on the menu.

I stood there on that day, craning my neck for an angle to point my lens between leaves and branches. A gentleman sidled up beside me and asked ‘are you looking for that Powerful Owl’? I excitedly told him that I had managed to sight it, but for this man the novelty had already worn off. He introduced himself as the secretary of the City of Melbourne lawn bowls club, which is based within the grounds of Flagstaff Gardens. The man then continued ‘that thing causes a mess. I need to get here early to make sure that I collect the possum heads that it leaves on the bowling greens’. Yes, that’s right, the Powerful Owl has an appetite for possums, fur, bones and all.

A Powerful Owl’s ability to decapitate or otherwise dismember a possum is certainly enough justification for its imposing name. Besides Brushtail and Ringtail possums Powerful Owls’ diet can extend to fruit bats and even large birds such as Australian Magpies or Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

The second time around

I didn’t have to wait too long for my second sighting of a Powerful Owl, and one that was pure chance. My first sighting was in the middle of Melbourne on the 27th of May, 2009. The second came while on a study field trip on the 28th of May, 2009 in the Yarra Ranges, beyond Melbourne’s metropolitan boundary. Whereas the previous day’s owl was up high and tricky to spot owl number two was in the open, a little above head-height. The few photos that I took of this moment were worse than dreadful. I put this down to a number of factors: the terrible, overcast sky, my photographic inexperience or a panic to keep up with my class group.

And there was that stare. Having an eye-to-eye moment with a Powerful Owl is a wonderfully intense moment. Part of you is transfixed that you have this moment, while you wonder if there is the potential to learn how this owl got the name ‘Powerful’. There have been reports of Powerful Owls not taking kindly to human intrusions into their territory. Dr Beth Mott, Birdlife Australia’s Powerful Owl Project Officer, summarised a Powerful Owl/human encounter as ‘generally (been) scratching, but there’s definitely a risk of psychological trauma from getting swooped by such a big bird’. Personally I’d rather be attacked by a family of Australian Magpies than take my chances with one Powerful Owl. At approximately 67cm and over 2kg in weight

Thankfully I have had more encounters with Powerful Owls since those back-to-back days of 2009. And thankfully my photography has improved since then. Powerful Owls tend to be creatures of habit and will return to their favourite roosting trees each year, particularly when adding to their family. For a bird so cryptic and shy it is possible to find them in regular annual roosting areas. Even if you visit a roosting sight several years apart there is a good chance to find a Powerful Owl in that same spot.

Regardless of the photographic evidence, each encounter with one of these amazing birds is a special memory that one doesn’t forget. Those of us who live in Australia’s east coast cities are fortunate to have these special birds living amongst us. And we should do what we can to ensure that future generations keep returning to our suburbs to watch over us…and eat possums.

Graham, Wild Ramblings

The Joy of Birds

I remember a day about a decade and a half or so ago when Laura and I were having some sort of conversation about Australian wildlife. ‘What about birds?’ Laura asked. ‘Birds are just so common‘, I replied, Yes, I meant that in a derogatory way. I must have been chasing sightings of Echidnas, reptiles, anything else but ‘birds’.

I was missing the point at the time. Yes, bird sightings are much more common than mammals and reptiles, but that is the wonder of them – they are all around us in all habitats. Some of the species, such as Silver Gulls, Noisy Miners and Eurasian coots seem to be everywhere and are certainly very common. But some bird species are certainly a rare and special find. And most can’t be found everywhere. It’s fair to say that my simplistic and blinkered view of our feathered friends has shifted somewhat since that day when I scoffed at the ‘commonality’ of the avian branch of the Animalia kingdom. People will often ask me if I developed my interest in birds from a family member at a young age, but my conversion was from a much more technological introduction.

Noisy Miner

Many hardcore traditionalist birdwatchers will often wonder why one needs to point a camera lens at a bird when a pair of binoculars will more than suffice. But for me I can thank my first DSLR camera for revealing the joy of birds. I was fortunate to live in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Altona when I would take my new toy for a walk or a bike ride around the neighbourhood. I was just looking for interesting ‘things’ to point my 300mm kit lens at. It was only from this exercise that I realised that my suburb had a diverse range of birds that I had never noticed before. Altona has a range of habitats; besides its beaches it has wooded areas, grasses, wetlands and creeks. According to eBird, Altona has recorded at least 169 species in a suburb that is only approximately 10km from the heart of Melbourne. So I had a great range of wonderful birds to hook me in to this wonderful interest.

Royal Spoonbill

Birds such as Black-shouldered Kites, Darters, Brown Falcons and seasonal shorebirds were a wonderful discovery. The size, shape and colours of these birds were a perfect subject for my camera. Yes, some of them were more sedentary and easier to photograph than others (and that is something that never changes by the way). But it was a fascinating challenge all the same.

Black-shouldered Kite

I also wanted to know who these birds were and study their behaviour. I wondered why some birds would be there at some times of the year and not others. I would learn who lived where and what they would eat. And then came the books: my book shelves would start to fill with Field Guides, bird literature and anything else that could fill my head with bird knowledge. Well, they did that, and also managed to tempt me to go find amazing birds that I never knew existed. My camera wasn’t the only technology that came in handy. I was glad to find that the internet was growing with bird-related information and discussion.

While my Canon 400D was my initial medium for finding the joy of birds in the first place, birdwatching has become a medium in its own right. I established a social bird photography group where people could learn together. I made some good friends and learned a lot from being the organiser of this group.

Birdwatching is wonderful excercise on a number of levels. Aside from the walking and carrying of equipment in pursuit of an amazing sighting there is a lot to be said for exercising your senses.

Birdwatching could possibly be nature’s optometrist. Try sighting a tiny Brown Thornbill as it zooms in and out of Acacia implexa. It’s one thing to sight the bird, but another to track its movement patterns as it disappears behind a tree twenty metres away. I now always seem to be on Tawny Frogmouth lookout whenever walking around Melbourne. The species does very well to blend into trees, most people walking right past the stationary bird.

Brown Thornbill

One of the many wonderful thing about Australia’s birds is that they are some of the world’s greatest songbirds. Not only is one of life’s simple pleasures to hear these songs and calls, but it’s a great listening and memory test to attempt to identify birds that you can’t see. Learning bird calls is akin to learning a language. I have even seen people who do a remarkable job of impersonating bird calls. I have even seen birds who are masters of mimicry themselves!

Superb Lyrebird

As you can see, bird watching is a multi-faceted interest. And it is one that anyone can do to any degree; you may become fascinated by what lives in your garden or local park, or you may be someone who spends great money and time, travelling to see as many bird species as possible. The phrase ‘The Joy of Birds’ has become a much used one, but it’s easy to see why.

The fascination and quirks of the avian world is enough justification to turn this into an ongoing series of articles that I hope that you enjoy. Maybe you’ll even be converted to birdwatching along the way.

Graham

Bringing back the Bush

This year’s theme for the United Nations World Environment Day (5th of June) is ‘Reimagine. Recreate. Restore’. In this strange, crazy era that we’re in the middle of it’s a refreshing change to celebrate and promote positivity. And when it comes to conservation most of what we read is the seemingly endless bad news stories. While we shouldn’t forget the sad realities of climate change, extinctions, habitat loss and other disasters we need to acknowledge positive action. Some amazing work is being done quietly to try to go some way to reverse the damage that has been done.

According to the last census approximately 71% of the Australian population lives in our major cities. But it’s outside of the cities where the heavy lifting is happening on the conservation front. There is often a city-centric belief that the Australian bush is full of farmers and other people who don’t care about the land beyond what they grow or graze. Looking from the cities and suburbs it is hard to reconcile farming and rural life with conservation. There are some historical reasons for these doubts.

Almost immediately after European settlement for Australia’s ecosystems and habitats to be changed forever; In addition to housing convicts, Australia was seen as a vast, open land waiting to be farmed. Colonial settlers were industrious at tearing up the landscape to be cleared for pastoral farming. Animal species not previously on the continent were introduced either accidentally or deliberately. Modern day landowners have learnt from history and many are now doing what they can to work with nature, rather than compete with it.

Earlier this year I spent a week out in Victoria’s Western District around the Grampians region. It was here that I met families, landowners, individuals and organisations who are doing amazing work to bring back the bush and the species that live there.

Corea station

My accommodation during that week was Corea Station at Dunkeld. Corea was the perfect place to experience the history of farming and what the future looks like. The property was purchased by William Thomson back in 1905 and is now owned and managed by his Granddaughter Cee, her husband Bill and their sons Charlie and Edward. You can feel the history of the property staying in renovated shearers quarters that were built in 1940.

Looking towards the Grampians from Corea

I never get bored of looking at the rugged peaks of the Grampians. Looking towards them from under the verandah of the shearers quarters the view is punctuated by lines of gum trees. Cee Blackwell laughs when we calculate that the trees are the same age as me. The trees were planted back then for the sake of providing a wind break to protect the sheep and cattle from the wind and rain; this part of the state regularly provides the prime statistics for wind and rain events. The trees have matured to provide valued habitat to some of the rich birdlife that can be found around the Grampians region. Cee and Bill shared their casual observations on bird species that they have increasingly noticed around the property over time that weren’t around in the past.

As soon as I parked the van at Corea I took a short walk over to the wetland that happened to be only 100 metres from the shearers quarters. The water and the surrounding vegetation were alive with various bird species including Musk Ducks, a White-necked Heron, Yellow Spoonbill and Spotted Pardalotes. I was thinking how perfectly natural this wetland looked and the good fortune to have such an asset within a farm. When Cee told me that the wetland was not at all natural I was surprised: it’s been excavated and maintained in different stages by different generations of her family, The wetland is much more than a farm dam especially with islands, specifically selected plantings and the mature River Red Gums.

My stay coincided with the annual shearing of Corea’s sheep. I managed a quick chat with Bill and Cee’s son Charlie as him and the work dogs were rounding up the flock. He shared with me that he believed it was crucial for farmers to work with nature, rather than against it. It was Charlie who helped arrange a visit to Mount Sturgeon Homestead, where I would meet some special characters.

Mount Sturgeon Homestead

Most people who visit Dunkeld know of the famed Royal Mail Hotel, which has a reputation as the finest gastropub in country Victoria with two chef’s hats. The organisation that own and manage the Royal Mail Hotel also manage the accommodation at nearby Mount Sturgeon Homestead, a wonderfully maintained example of 1800s bluestone architecture. The property also houses a number of predator-proof enclosures for several wildlife species who are now uncommon in the wild due to habitat loss and predators such as cats and foxes.

I think it may have been when I got to handfeed Bruce the (Rufous) Bettong that I lost my adult mind and regressed to being an excited child. Bruce was more excited in the cob of corn I was offering rather than my attempts at conversation.

Fat-tailed Dunnart

It was equally exciting to watch a family of Fat-tailed Dunnarts zoom about. These tiny carnivorous marsupials are part of the Dasyuridae family and are related to Tasmanian Devils and Quolls.

While Tasmanian Devils are world famous fewer people would be aware of Quolls. There are six species within the Quoll genus – 4 are Australian and 2 exist within Papua New Guinea. At Mount Sturgeon they have a few Eastern Quoll individuals. I was trying to get a photo of the agile animals as they darted in and out of tree hollows. Jay, the ranger who was taking me around the enclosures knew that I was staying at Corea and thought that I’d be interested in an excerpt of a newspaper article from over 100 years ago.

It’s important to know that the Eastern Quoll was previously known as the ‘Native Cat’ and is now classified as extinct on mainland Australia .The article published in The Australasian in 1910 is summarised as follows:

‘I know Corea well. It is within easy distance from my home. We had cats by the thousand in my young days. I remember when a youngster seeing them in and on all the walls. They were everywhere then. I used to catch hundreds of them in my rabbit traps. This would be in the (eighteen) eighties. Then suddenly they disappeared. Some observers are of the opinion that the abundance of rabbits available was the indirect cause. But I do not think so. Mr. H. Quiney, of Mortlake, who is a keen observer, thinks, with me, that their extinction was due to some epidemic disease. For the cats died in myriads, almost simultaneously’.
‘F.R.’ The Australasian, 1910. The full article can be found below:

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Reading such observations makes one frustrated about the plight of our treasured wildlife. Sadly Australia is a world heavyweight when it comes to species extinction. There are captive breeding programs happening to attempt to one day bring the Eastern Quoll back to the wild on the Australian mainland. Given the lack of foxes in Tasmania they are still roaming amongst their Devil cousins. Much more than a cute, carnivorous marsupial, Quolls are one of Australia’s apex predator species, playing an important role in keeping their ecosystems in check.

Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby

Mount Sturgeon’s sanctuary has its own captive breeding program for a species that is being released back into The Grampians National Park. The Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby may be Victoria’s fauna emblem, but it is far from famous like its kangaroo cousins. Not only have Brush-tailed Rock Wallabies suffered from fox predation, but they were also historically killed for their fur. After individuals were initially being reintroduced back in 2008 there is now evidence that they have mated and produced their own offspring in the wild. The Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby is an amazing animal to experience; not only are they incredibly agile, but they can hop their way around rocky ridges and even up trees, like the one photographed above.

Conservation projects like the Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby require a lot of resources, hard work from a lot of people (paid and unpaid) and the signs of success can often be hard to see. But when you stop to think at what has been undone and what has been lost in such a short space of time it’s important that we do what we can…before it’s too late for more of our special wildlife and their homes,

Graham

Meet the ferals: House Mouse

animal blur close up cute

Warning: this post contains images of dead mice…lots of dead mice.

Primary school children handling mice on open day, Wangaratta, 1970. Source: State Library Victoria

The European world referred to Australia as either New Holland or Terra Australis across the 17th to 19th centuries. When ships arrived from countries such as Britain or the Netherlands they transferred people, equipment and goods ashore. Somewhere amongst those items transferred from ship to shore were mice. The House Mouse, Mus musculus, may be one of the world’s smallest mammals, but its impact on the Australian landscape, ecology and agricultural industries has been immeasurably disastrous.

At the time that this blog post is published, regions within Eastern Australia are experiencing a severe mice plague. Many households experience the odd mouse or evidence of, but this plague is somewhat more than that. The scenes and incidents are what you would normally expect to see in a CGI-fuelled Hollywood disaster movie. This is not the first time that a mouse plague such as this has occurred in Australia and it won’t be the last. This small, seemingly harmless rodent has caused much immeasurable damage directly and indirectly with each outbreak. So what causes mice to become a plague? It’s a series of events combined with the ability for mice to multiply rapidly.

animal blur close up cute
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The 2020/21 grain harvest season is expected to be the second highest on record across Australia. While this is indeed welcome news for farmers in this fickle farming country, it also meant an abundance of food for mice. The more food for mice, the more that are able to survive and the more that are able to breed and multiply. Last Summer was also rather mild throughout much of the country which enabled plentiful food and good breeding conditions which continued into Autumn and Winter.

To say that mice are efficient at breeding is a gross understatement. A female mouse can have up to 9 litters of 4-6 pups within a year. And that female can begin mating as early as 4 weeks’ old, but typically 6-8 weeks. While a mouse may only live for 12-18 months, a female can give birth to approximately 50 pups within that lifetime. And if we estimate that half of those pups are females that’s another 25 to contribute to the next generation of the mice army. If you repeat that equation enough you can imagine how a plague happens.

Many individual farmers put their financial losses at $AU125,000 or more. The fear at the moment is that conditions may be favourable enough for the mice to continue at this rate into next year. Aside from losses from last year’s crops farmers are unable or unwilling to sow what they should be this year – there’s no point planting seeds that mice will eat before it can grow.

It’s not just farmers who have been affected by the mice. A recent casualty of the plague is Wellington Prison in Western New South Wales. The mice have eaten through electrical cables causing a fire hazard. Their presence is also a health hazard due to their ability to attract mites and disease after they die and decay. The mice have been at the prison since late last year. But their numbers are now so great that they have forced the relocation of prisoners while building remediation works are carried out.

So what to do with the mice? What normally happens is that the mice eat food stocks until there’s not enough to spread amongst their population and there is mass starvation. To attempt to expedite the demise of the mice there is also the option of poison baits, which brings another set of problems. Farmers typically use Zinc Phosphide poison to poison mice throughout their paddocks. In May 2021 the New South Wales State Government applied to the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to allow use of the chemical Bromadiolone for agricultural use. The poison has been referred to as ‘Napalm for mice’ and is banned for agricultural use in most countries around the world. The application was declined due to the high potential for secondary poisoning. Birds of prey such as owl species who typically eat small mammals would also ingest the poison that remains in a mouse they may eat, subsequently killing the predator. Snakes and large reptiles such as Goannas are also potential victims for secondary poisoning. Secondary poisoning also occurs with Zinc Phosphide and other poisons, but they are considered faster acting and limit the travel area of affected mice.

There is even the possibility of humans becoming involved in the poison food chain. In another scene reminiscent of a bad horror movie, a popular fishing target has been found to have been eating some of the mice!

The great plague of 1917

This is not the first time that Australia has experienced a mouse apocalypse. There have been dozens of outbreaks of plagues since the arrival of Mus musculus. One of the more notable occurred in 1917 throughout the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

The below photographic series outlines the response at the time, using what was known as the ‘double-fence’ system. The mice were corralled down a fenced channel into a pit where they would be poisoned or gassed…in great numbers. Photos have been sourced from the State Library Victoria’s online database.

The mice plague was daily news. An article published in The Argus newspaper on 31st March, 1917 was headlined ‘MICE PLAGUE: MILLIONS SLAUGHTERED – NUMBERS NOT DECREASING’.

Mice are now being slain in millions as the result of the campaign for the protection of the wheat stacks. The biggest catch for one night at a single stack so far has been 30,000 mice at the Lascelles Station. At the Marnoo Station the figures for the first three nights were 8,000, 10,000, 12,000. It looked as if the numbers caught were going to rise indefinitely, but after the third day the haul settled down to about 10,000 a night. Banyena and other stations on the Lubeck-Marnoo line show results similar to those at Marnoo.

So far the system adopted of fencing in the stacks, with traps at intervals, has worked well judging by the number of mice caught, but it seems to make little difference in their numbers. At Wahring, bisulphide of carbon proved effective in driving the mice out of the stack, but most of them were only dazed and recovered afterwards, though some died.

In the Goulburn Valley and the North-East the wheat is being rapidly moved away. In the Western district, to the south of the Adelaide line, the mice trouble is not serious, and the same is true of the district north of Bendigo as far as Kerang and Cohuna.

In the districts most affected, such as the Wimmera and parts of the Mallee, the whole country is overrun with mice. The more adventurous mice are coming down to the seaboard. Sometimes when railway trucks full of wheat arrive at Geelong the mice jump out in dozens. Up in the Mallee the mice are now invading the houses, and doing much damage. At Donald a travelling representative of the Wheat Commission found in the morning that a mouse had made a nest under his pillow, and it is said that the mice also eat holes in the bed clothes. A conference of inspectors and others is to be held on Monday to consider the results of the measures taken to protect the wheat stacks and the further action to be taken.

Although the 1917 plague happened over 100 years ago the mice problem is no different. It requires labour, resources and a lot of money to be thrown at the problem. Collectively the farmers of New South Wales estimate that the current plague has cost over $1 Billion already. That state’s government has already committed $150 million to combat the mice.

For a small, seemingly cute, innocent mammal that weighs 20 grams the mouse is a perfect example of what can be achieved when a species has such a weight of numbers. Nobody knows how many mice first set foot on Australia, but this tiny rodent has caused immeasurable damage and will continue to do so.

‘It’s a nice name, but what does it mean’?

Have you ever noticed when you wander around a zoo or botanic garden that the animal or plant you’re looking at has two names? You may see a sign telling you that you’re standing underneath the canopy of a River Red Gum tree, but the same sign also tells you that you’re also standing under a Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If your curiosity goes beyond how beautiful the tree is it may prompt you to wonder what that secondary name is all about.

EUCALYPTUS CAMALDULENSIS

While those secondary names – known as binomial or scientific names – may seem challenging at first, you can be rewarded if you unravel them. Deconstructing a scientific name can unravel history and quirkiness that gives context to the time and events when European naturalists studied and described elements of our natural world. In this series we will deconstruct some of those strange names and find out that there is often quite a story – or at least a fascinating translation – behind them.

So let’s use the aforementioned Eucalyptus camaldulensis to start deconstructing some of these names. Eucalyptus is the name of the genus that includes over 700 tree species within the Myrtaceae family. The River Red Gum is a very Australian tree. Not only did it provide early settlers with quality building timber, some of them were retained as livestock shelter; travelling through open farm country in much of Australia the paddocks and fields are punctuated by these broad, beautiful trees. And throughout the hundreds of years of their existence these trees provide habitat to a diverse range of our wonderful wildlife. This is a tree that has been labelled ‘Australia’s tree’ or an ‘Australian Icon’. So it would be fair to assume that the River Red Gum’s scientific name would reflect its place as an Australian cornerstone, right? Well we need to think about the time and events of when our River Red Gum was ‘christened’ with its less obvious name.

In December 1816 botanist and naturalist English Allan Cunningham arrived in Sydney after spending two years collecting plant specimens in Brazil having left England 4 years earlier. Before he died in Sydney in 1839, Cunningham had collected several hundred specimens and seeds of Australian plants. Some of these samples he believed would replace the ‘imperfect’ specimens collected by the more famous botanist Joseph Banks. In 1817 one of the plants’ seeds Cunningham collected was that of what we now know as the River Red Gum tree.

Meanwhile in Naples, Italy, the German botanist Friedrich Dehnhardt was busy curating gardens for a man known as the Count of Camalduli. The Count was part of an order of monks whose history dated back to 1012. The name of this order of monks was the ‘Camaldoli’. Camaldoli is derived from the Italian words Campo (countryside) and Maldolo. Count Maldolo was said to be the man who donated the countryside field to St. Romuald who established a monastery on the site in Tuscany.

Tuscany, Italy

It’s unclear how they were aware of each other, but Allan Cunningham sent some of his River Red Gum seeds to Friedrich Dehnhardt. Dehnhardt duly planted the seeds at L’Hortus Camaldulensis di Napoli, the private gardens of the Count of Camalduli. These trees were allowed to grow until the 1920s. Given that he was the curator of the Camaldoli gardens and that is where he studied the plant, Dehnhardt believed that this Eucalyptus tree species should be named in honour of the gardens. But that wasn’t the end of naming this iconic Aussie bush tree.

Friedrich Dehnhardt named The River Red Gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis in 1832, but his botanical work and naming of the species was largely unknown for some years. Other botanists had their own take on the tree in the following years. In 1847 another German botanist, Diederich Franz Leonhard von Schlechtendal, named the plant Eucalyptus rostrata. This name, however, had already been applied to another Eucalyptus species by Spanish botanist Antonio José Cavanilles. In the 1850s the famed German/Australian botanist Baron Ferdinand von Mueller named specimens of the tree Eucalyptus longirostris. In 1934 Australian botanist William Blakely declared that the rightful botanical name for the River Red Gum was Eucalyptus camaldulensis. Blakely assisted British botanist Joseph Maiden who was considered the foremost authority on Eucalyptus species, writing the eight volume A Critical Revision of the Genus Eucalyptus.

Australian indigenous Aboriginals have many names for this wonderful tree that they have witnessed over tens of thousands of years. Throughout areas of Victoria it is known as Be-Al. Other Aboriginal names include Yarrowee, Bealiba and Warracknabeal. If you are fortunate enough to admire one of these quintessential Australian trees just remember it was described and named by a German in Italy from seeds sent to him from an Englishman.

Meet the Locals

When it comes to Australia’s wildlife it seems that Kangaroos and Koalas get the bulk of the world’s attention in the cute and cuddly category. Some of our reptiles such as Saltwater Crocodiles and our varied snake species tend to evoke some strong reactions of being anything other than cute or cuddly. But our country has many more species than Kangaroos and Koalas.

Australia’s birds, mammals, reptiles and frogs are estimated to total 2470 species. Given that Australia evolved in isolation for much of the last 65 million years, our country has many unique fauna species. Most of them are cute in their own right and they all deserve to be known about; it’s easier to save species while we know about their existence and what they need to survive. They all deserve to live, regardless of how cute they may or may not be!

In this series we will showcase some of the lesser known Australians, talking about where they live, what they eat and how they are coping in modern Australia.

Meet the Ferals

fox sticking it s tongue

It’s a sad realisation that here in Australia we have so many feral – or introduced – species of animals for me to confidently commit to a long series of posts on the topic. Some of these animals are obvious and well-known such as mammals like foxes, rabbits, rats and mice. And of course there are the Cane Toads amongst the famous ecological villains. But many introduced species are not so famous, yet cause plenty of damage to our ecology and agriculture in their own right.

These introduced animals have arrived here in a variety of ways. Sometimes they were literally introduced by colonial settlers and sometimes they have found their way here by other means. Sometimes we are challenged by what is or isn’t considered introduced. And sometimes animals that we may consider native has been introduced to where it previously hasn’t existed within the country.

Sadly Australia is a fascinating case study on the impact of introduced species. I hope that you find this series interesting in the weeks, months and years ahead.

View the full series here: https://wildramblings.com.au/category/blog-series/meet-the-ferals/

They can be found Hiding in Plain Sight

I tend to notice birds who try to remain unseen. My ‘super power’ is spotting Tawny Frogmouths. I have had fun watching friends trying to spot one that I’ve seen in North Eastern Melbourne’s habitat that hugs the Yarra River. That reserve, Banyule Flats, was my local playground and a haven for ‘Tawny spotting’. In fact, I would also spot them in the small park across the road from our apartment block.

Work circumstances caused us to move from the relatively green suburb of Heidelberg to the ultra-urban inner city of Melbourne’s Docklands. I knew that the prospect of seeing Tawny Frogmouths was very unlikely. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of wildlife at all really.

Walking along the polluted, degraded waterfront I soon noticed what others didn’t; my new neighbourhood has its own hidden bird, the Nankeen Night Heron. A regular stream of humans pass unaware of its presence amongst the rotting bollards. To me it became a new friend who I always look out for. I now know at least three of these beautifully sleek birds live down there. Whether they are noticed or not, it’s important to me that they continue to live there.

Melbourne’s a perfect city for Urban Birding. Get in touch for an tour.

Originally written for Urban Field Naturalist (https://www.urbanfieldnaturalist.org)

The things that we ‘collect’

As a resident of inner-Melbourne I confess to having fallen for the incidental pastime of ‘collecting’ UooUoos. You may well be wondering what a UooUoo is at this point, which is quite understandable. In case you’re unaware of the existence of these, they are a collection of 100 fictional fibreglass quadrupeds, each decorated. The official description of a UooUoo is ‘an imaginary Australian creature whose shape is loosely drawn from the wombat and dugong’.

Whatever your initial thoughts are, the existence of UooUoos has prompted people to ‘collect’ them around Melbourne and surrounds in this post-lockdown era. People ‘hunt’ the creations and cross them off on the official App. The UooUoo concept is not new and has been conducted in various guises in cities across the world for many years; as far back as 1999 Chicago started Cow Parade, which has inspired several thousand cows across 80 cities around the world.

Nintendo, the originator of Pokémon Go is doing quite well out of people searching for virtual creatures. as of November 2020 people around the world had spent $US 4 billion since it came into non-existence back in July 2016; in the first ten months of 2020 alone revenue for Pokémon Go was $1US billion. At its peak in 2016 45 million people around the world were playing Pokémon Go per day. That figure has bounced up and down since, but there’s still a healthy number that play the game each day – the lowest it ever dipped to was 5 million people after the initial hype died off in 2016.

turned on iphone displaying pokemon go charizard application
Photo by Anton on Pexels.com

Perhaps the most famous and most successful example of such ‘collecting’ is that of the Pokémon phenomenon. In this format there are no fibreglass statues to visit and record however. The Pokémon are ‘virtual’ creatures. To many of us that may seem like an abstract concept to get our head around. But millions of people around the world push on regardless, searching for creatures that don’t exist.

People have collected many different type of things throughout history: shells, stamps, coins, swap cards, shoes… As a child I dabbled in stamp collecting as many did. In my early twenties I started collecting beer bottles of the brews that I had tasted. But that wasn’t very practical in a townhouse with limited space. So the natural alternative was beer glasses…but that likewise grew faster than the specimens were dropping on the floor.

My interests evolved into a different direction after getting my first digital SLR camera. Through the lens I had noticed something that I hadn’t before. Birds. I soon became fascinated by the diversity of them, watching them and finding them. I began ‘collecting’ bird species that I had sighted or photographed. While photography initially drew me in, I wanted to find out more about these living individuals that I hadn’t noticed before: what were their names? How common are they? What is making that call? Is that a species that I have seen before or one that looks similar?

Birdwatching became my new obsession. Not just ‘collecting’ birds, but being interested in everything about them. There are of course levels of obsession when it comes to this pastime. One might be a birdwatcher, a birder or a twitcher. A birdwatcher can be classified as a more casual of these categories, while a birder is someone who is fairly active in their activities. A Twitcher, however, is the more extreme of the categories. Lately there has been a rare bird attracting people from all over Australia to Cairns in North Queensland. The possibility of seeing this one individual bird (a Nordmann’s Greenshank for those of you interested) is enough for people to book a trip to add one more to their ‘life list’.

The term ‘Twitcher’ originates from Britain in a time long before the internet and even mobile phones existed. These extremists would communicate via landline to inform of an unusual or rare bird. Some reports say that people would drop everything, even in winter, travelling across the country and shivering – or twitching – from the cold. Another story details two men in particular who would fuel themselves on so much coffee that they would be uncontrollably ‘twitching’ as they got to the destination. There is never a guarantee that the bird being ‘twitched’ is going to be there by the way.

While I’m not a twitcher I do enjoy the discovery of new species and it’s a nice bonus if I get a good photo to add to my collection. I have also become much more aware of the natural world and the impact that we’re having on it and the birds and other living things. I think that most bird watchers are good people who believe in making the planet better. As for my collection, I don’t need to ‘catch them all’ as is the case in the Pokemon world, but I enjoy the ones I do find.

I was curious about the Pokémon phenomenon and what causes people to be so engaged with it, so I asked some of the local people who participate in it. There were similarities with birdwatching, such as getting out and being around nature while sharing the experience with family or friends. I can’t help but wonder if we can convince some of the world’s massive Pokémon fanbase to try birdwatching. Then we may end up with people who are more tuned to the state of the natural world around them and the challenges it is increasingly facing

If you would like to try ‘collecting’ birds why not consider joining me on a Birdwatching Tour? https://wildramblings.com.au/birdwatching-tours/