Originally published in ‘Nature Territory’ October 2012, Newsletter of the Northern Territory Field Naturalists Club Inc.

 

They’re noisy, they’re dog proof and they love to dig up the garden. They are the Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt), a common sight and sound around Top End suburbia these days.

Affectionately known as Scrubbies, these opportunistic, chicken-sized relics of Gondwana appear to thrive in close proximity to humans and often seem oblivious to our presence. They do especially well in our tropical gardens which offer many things that scrubfowl need, such as dense trees and vegetation and plenty of moisture. Gardens also provide a source of food such as insects, fruits, berries, seeds and shoots.

Being a megapode, scrubfowl create nest mounds using plant material and sand or soil which pairs of birds will return to and maintain each year. Occasionally several pairs may use a single mound simultaneously (Palmer et al. 2000) and some mounds have had continual use for over 40 years (Jones et al. 1995). Using strong orange legs and feet the birds continuously add and remove leaf litter, mulch and other materials to the mound to mediate the temperature inside for egg-incubation. This is not always welcomed by gardeners since they dishevel garden beds and irrigation systems in the process. Not to mention that their ‘maniacal calls and screams carry some distance’ (Wildcare undated). Mounds are sometimes removed to deter messy, noisy birds however attitudes towards them are generally positive (Gillis & Noske 2007).

Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Bees Creek. Credit: Mischievous Magpie

Megapodius reinwardt hasn’t always been a suburban resident. It has a large range and is found in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and northern Australia. It occurs in a range of habitats from sea-level to 1,800m, including lowland and montane forest, swamp forest, mangroves and more arid bushy or wooded country near the coast (BirdLife 2012). Local records suggest the birds used to be restricted to large patches of monsoon forest on the coast or inland (Crawford 1972) such as Casuarina Coastal Reserve or East Point and there is no mention of Orange-footed Scrubfowl in Thompson’s 1978 ‘Common Birds of the Darwin Suburbs’. Scrubfowl were first noticed inhabiting Darwin city around the end of the 1980’s and by the late 1990’s were a common sight in gardens and streets across 23 suburbs (Franklin & Baker 2005).

So why this growth in the suburban population? Several theories exist. One suggests that two main threats to scrubfowl eggs, buffalo and monitors, have decreased significantly in recent years due to culling programs and cane toad poisoning respectively. Another theory points to destruction of scrubfowl habitat in places like Lee Point and Buffalo Creek to create the very suburbs the birds now inhabit. A third theory suggests that the suburbs initially acted as sinks for excess young from nearby rainforests and may now be both sinks and sources of new generations of the species.

Whatever the reason, urbanisation of scrubfowl provides us with a great opportunity to learn more and some interesting behavior has been observed in recent weeks.

About four years ago on a Bees Creek bush block, a pair of Orange-footed Scrubfowl claimed for their mound a 2 metre tall pile of topsoil intended for the garden. They’ve maintained the mound and two juveniles have been spotted in the last two years. On Wednesday 18th July, the pair was challenged by a male previously observed foraging in open woodland to the rear of the property. The trio’s cacophonous shrieking, flapping and chasing around attracted the attention of another pair who appeared from nearby until all five of them were cackling and flapping about on the nest-mound. The neighbouring pair appeared to be helping the resident male defend his mate as they frequently lunged at the interloper and once they had seen him off, made a noisy exit back to their own patch. The resident pair returned to digging on their mound. A couple of hours later the challenging male returned and despite the female’s best efforts and her male’s attempts to divert the interloper, the latter managed to pin her down and mate with her. Immediately afterwards the resident male mated with her. This was followed by much chasing around the garden until finally the challenger left.

A similarly extraordinary event involving five scrubfowl leaping on each other was observed the day before in a Darwin suburb. Perhaps the rain the previous Sunday had stirred the birds to begin breeding. Orange-footed Scrubfowl pair-bond but although the female is polygamous she tends to mate with other males out of sight and forced mating such as this is thought to be unusual.

All of this begs several questions. Is it common for scrubfowl to interact this way or is this possibly a suburban behaviour? Has suburban breeding increased since the last survey was conducted in 1998? As clearing continues to cater for larger and denser human populations in Darwin, Palmerston and the rural area will the birds still find a home in our suburbs?

There is clearly much more to learn about our Top End scrubfowl. Their high visibility, popularity and fascinating behavior could make these birds the ideal focus for a citizen science project. As well as adding to knowledge about the birds, participants might develop stronger attachments to their local Scrubbies and may inspire others to maintain wildlife friendly gardens and suburbs.

…………………………………………………

This article developed from a discussion on the NT Birds list and the author gratefully acknowledges the following local birding experts for their contribution: Graham Brown, Fiona Douglas, Johnny Estbergs, Stephen Garnett, Mike Jarvis, Niven McCrie, Richard Noske, Magen Pettit, John Rawsthorne, Jo Wright.

References

BirdLife International 2012. Species factsheet: Megapodius reinwardt. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 04/08/2012.

Crawford, D. N. 1972. Birds of Darwin area, with some records from other parts of Northern

Territory. Emu, 72, 131-148.

Franklin, D.C. & Baker, B. The Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt as an urban bird in Darwin, Northern Territory. Australian Field Ornithology 22, 48 – 50.

Gillis, M. & Noske, R.A. 2007. Orange-footed Scrubfowl in Darwin – horticultural pest or partner? Northern Territory Naturalist 19: 76-80.

Jones, D.N., Dekker, R.W.R.J. & Roselaar, C.S. 1995. The Megapodes. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Thompson H.A.F. 1978. Common birds of the Darwin suburbs. Pp. 7-12.

Wildcare undated. Living with Orange-footed Scrubfowl Factsheet. Downloaded from www.wildcarent.org.au/factsheets on 04/08/2012.

Presentation delivered to CDU Open Day 28/08/11

What do birds mean to you?

Sunday lunch? Birdwatching? Pollination?

I’d like to suggest that Australian birds are much more valuable to us than we may realize.

Over 300 bird species give their names to Australian streets and towns.

85 Aussie stamps feature different native birds.

Our governments, councils and defense forces all use birds as emblems to symbolize their values.

Think about sports teams: we’ve got the kookaburras, the swans, the magpies, the crows, the eagles, sea-eagles, roosters…

Birds also add richness to our language: we talk about budgie smugglers and ostrich policies; something can be grouse and someone a drongo.

 

Examples of bird values

 

The images above represent some of the values our society holds for birds. For example those in the top left corner represent a cultural symbolic value.

In the right top corner we see a scientific interest in particular species of birds.

The artwork represents an aesthetic value.

A spiritual value is found in the role that native birds play in Aboriginal myths.

And of course we also hold a utilitarian value for some species of birds.

 

Like a shag on a rock

 

I chose this picture because many of our native birds are quite literally facing this predicament.

There are over 800 bird species in Australia.

Two thirds are in long term decline.

1 in 5 are endangered.

Habitat loss is their main threat.

So what are the solutions?

Well, my research aims to strengthen the connection between our cultural heritage and our natural heritage by describing how native birds are valued by Australians today.

To do this I’ve established a set of 12 value categories. Several of these are expressed in this picture, such as: conservation, cultural symbolism, anthropomorphism and ecology.

First I measured how each of our native birds is represented in Australian society and you just saw some examples of that.

Then I surveyed the general public and I asked them about their attitudes towards native birds.

Now I’m using qualitative case studies to investigate the social forces at work in threatened bird conservation and how the values held for specific threatened birds may affect the success of strategies used to conserve them.

For example take the orange-bellied parrot.

 

Orange-bellied parrots in captivity

 

The orange-bellied parrot is one of only two migratory parrots in Australia. It’s also one of the world’s most endangered animals. Experts estimate there are between 26 to 40 adult birds left in the wild.

In summer the wild birds breed in the forests of south-west Tasmania, in winter they feed on the coastal saltmarsh of Victoria and South Australia.

Each year these tiny birds fly back and forth across the Bass Strait not knowing whether drought or development will have left them the resources they need to survive.

You might have already heard about the orange-bellied parrot as it’s been the focus of much negative media attention due to supposedly preventing the development of a chemical plant in Victoria in 1994.

The Victorian Premier at the time, Jeff Kennett, made his feelings clear when he called it a trumped up corella.

This parrot is probably even more famous for supposedly preventing Bald Hills wind farm from going ahead 12 years later.

In both cases the media reported that these developments didn’t go ahead because orange-bellied parrots would be adversely affected by them.

For example chemical spillage from the chemical plant could ruin their habitat and the birds could fly into the wind turbines.

But in actual fact it was for economic and political reasons that these developments didn’t go ahead. Nothing to do with concern for the parrots.

This tiny endangered bird was picked up and bandied around like a political football.

There is also an insurance population of about 100 birds which are part of a captive breeding program. If the captive birds breed successfully over the next few years they may be released back into the wild.

But what will happen in the meantime?

Will the scientific community have worked out by then why the population’s declining so dramatically?

Will there be any wild birds left to teach the captive ones where to breed or where to migrate to?

Will landholders on the mainland protect the saltmarshes these birds need or will it be developed to suit our own needs?

Is this migratory bird which has evolved to fly thousands of kilometers over its lifetime fated to exist only in captivity?

Millions of dollars have already been invested in conserving this little bird. Should yet more money be spent trying to keep it alive when the odds for its long term survival seem so low?

And yet, can a wealthy modern society as we have in Australia today allow a species to go extinct under its watch?

The phrase trumped up corella has come to symbolise the significant cultural, economic and attitudinal differences that need to be addressed if we want to succeed in rescuing this beautiful little bird.

These decisions are made by society and are based on the values we hold about preserving our natural heritage.

Society decides whether it’s worth it or not. Society includes you and me.

So, next time you come across a bird….either in a tree, on a label or a coin….think again about what birds mean to us, how diminished our lives would be without them and how we can ensure they remain a valuable part of our future.