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.

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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.

Haunting, mournful and eerie are words often used to describe the night-time calls of the enigmatic curlew.  It’s little wonder these birds are shrouded in myths about death and mourning. Also known as “wailing women”, the bird’s cry often represents a mother grieving over the loss of her child.

But it’s the birds themselves that are becoming myths as their woodlands are disturbed and the large flocks of yesteryear dwindle to isolated pairs.  It’s mournful that this shy and gentle creature has been scared onto the endangered species list.

If you walk quietly across our lawn, and cast your eyes into the orchard, there by the pile of fallen branches you’ll find a family of bush-stone curlews.

Image

Bush-stone Curlew (Burhinus grallarius) Credit: Mischievous Magpie

We know they’re around when a typical evening’s squabbles and hoots are suddenly silenced by a supernatural keening.  It’s the cheerful dirge of curlews courting on our moonlit lawn. Later their frenzied screaming is accompanied by the doleful falsetto of chicks exploring the upper ranges of their spine-chilling repertoire.

We creep around in the dark, delighted to catch the occasional glimpse of them skulking, dashing and freezing, like a family of feathered ghouls practicing their scaring techniques.

Curlews bond for life and adults share the care of their young.  We take a moment every morning to count the heads from afar and satisfy ourselves the chicks are alive and thriving.  But a couple of weeks ago one of the parents disappeared.

Is that eerie keening now grief for the loss of a partner and mother?

The remaining adult may live out its 30 years; perhaps bring a new mate to our orchard and woo us all again with moonlit wailing.

Or we may never again enjoy the company of curlews and that really would be something worth mourning.

We were dismantling the old shed roof on our block yesterday evening, banging away at massive pieces of dangerously loose planks of wood attached to perilously sharp sheets of rusting corro, when we stopped to take stock and look around.

It’s not often we go into the woods next to the big billabong along the creek, for one thing it’s pretty overgrown with trailing vines and tangled branches, and for another it’s a haven for mosquitoes. Also it’s saltwater crocodile territory.

Today was no different, but as I stood back from the shed I heard the distinctive whistle of a radjah shelduck and then something very white caught my eye through the trees.

Living in the bush I’m on constant visual and aural alert for the next wildlife encounter: eyes and ears scanning for the new and unusual.  I’m always hopeful that the stick lying on the grass is a snake, or that the branch is swaying from a bird of prey landing.

The flash of white through the trees was one of those signals. A few steps into the woods and I could see it was something out of the ordinary. Something larger than usual. I once saw a little egret in the small billabong and I’m always hopeful it’ll come back. This time it was a great egret, stalking on the far side of the big billabong on the bank where the lily-filled pond meets the meandering creek. I could see the outline of its neck so long against the shapely curves of its body, so white against the mud-brown bank and aqua-green water.

Great egrets are twice the size of little egrets and can stand up to a metre tall. The joy of seeing such a creature in close proximity may well have been twice the joy of seeing the little egret. Who can measure a thing like that?

Great egret. Credit: realestatepuntacana.com

I called to my partner in demolition and we crept under the vines and over the branches, trying to crunch as quietly as possible on the ankle deep fallen leaves. Mind you our cacophanous banging and clattering hadn’t disturbed it so why should the sound of crunching leaves?

Approaching the brow of the billabong we could see another white shape at the edge of the water, a duck this time, the radjah shelduck I’d heard. It was still whistling quietly. Again its clean white and black body stood out sharply against the muted tones of the bank. This was even better. The ducks are quite common, in fact the local flock of maturing ducklings had kept me awake last night with their socialising in the mahogany next to the house. But to see both the egret and duck at the water’s edge really added to the sense of vitality around the billabong.

Radjah shelducks. Credit: MischievousMagpie

The water was completely still, the creek having all but stopped flowing, but it was deep and the white lilies were an attractive mask over the brackish water. All thoughts about the shed were forgotten now as getting a better sight of the birds drew me in. The egret was making its way up and down the creek, turning its yellow bill upstream and down searching for fish or crustaceans. There must be plenty to eat in there it seems, for such a large bird to bother.

Then as I got closer to the water’s edge another black and white shape caught my eye. This time it was a little pied cormorant perching on a branch suspended over the middle of the billabong.

Little pied cormorant. Credit: Lindsay Hansch, The Internet Bird Collection

This is going to sound really over the top, maybe because it seemed that way to me at the time, but I started to make my way around the water’s edge to get a closer look at the cormorant and of course startled it and lost it to the bush. But as I climbed the little mound at the far end of the billabong, where the pond meets the creek, I heard the distinctive groan of a crocodile right before it splashed into the creek. I didn’t see it, I was running too fast in the other direction. But this morning when we went back for another look I did see it, first of all basking on the sunlit bank, then not long after another groan and plunge, it resurfaced in the murky water. With the naked eye it resembled just another piece of floating debris; through the binoculars the curve of its back, a single eye and the tip of its snout came into focus.

What was so thrilling about experiencing those creatures together? That I could add two new birds and a crocodile to my block list? That it seemed our creek revegetation efforts were paying off? That they were simply beautiful to behold? That I hadn’t gone looking for this, it was pure serendipity? That they’ve likely been visiting the billabong without my knowledge and that my very presence might well prevent them ever returning?

Probably all of these things. Mostly though it was a moment of discovery; an inkling that things were better than I thought.