The call of the black currawong is the sound of the mountains in Tasmania, the trumpet song ringing out from the highest peaks.
Every time I receive requests from tourists, and their local hosts, to tell them where to find the species I wonder why it should be so high on the birders’ list, along with the yellow wattlebird.
To me, another bird associated with the high country, the green rosella, is far more exciting, but perhaps that’s because I have a l fascination with parrots stemming from the time I first saw them in pet shops when I was growing up in my native Britain.
The currawong, however, is not exclusive to the high country in Tasmania and a hike in the mountains, or a drive to Cradle Mountain where they harass tourists in the car park at Dove Lake, is not necessary to find them. They can easily be found around Fern Tree on the lower slopes of kunanyi/Mount Wellington, at the Springs half way up and at the summit. Sometimes they turn up just a few kilometres from Hobart, in the Waterworks Reserve, and can always be found on Bruny Island.
Tasmania, although mountainous, does not have any species that can be described as truly alpine, unlike New Zealand which has its famous mountain parrot, the kea. The closest we get to a bird of the peaks is the currawong and the green rosella. For the record, the black currawong is also called the “mountain jay” in Tasmania, and the green rosella the “mountain parrot”.
The currawong’s call is like a trumpet, or a chime, sounding “kar-week-week-kar” around the peaks but for some people visiting the high country it can be very grating. The pioneering naturalist John Gould described it as a “hand organ out of tune”.
The black currawong can look dramatic with its giant beak and menacing yellow eye, but it operates in the mountains without drama and display; it is workmanlike and industrious, highly intelligent and inventive. It has to be to survive in its harsh environment, without coming to lower ground where it might clash and compete for food with its cousin, the grey currawong, a bigger species which is also found on the mainland.
The two species are easily told apart, although the sub-species of grey currawong found in Tasmania is actually black in colour. The grey currawong, however, is slightly bigger than the endemic species and has white “windows” in its wings, as opposed to the white wingtips of the Tasmanian one. The grey currawong also has white feathers beneath the tail, perhaps its most distinguishing feature.
Currawongs are omnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of foodstuffs including insects and small vertebrates, carrion, and berries. They forage on the ground most often, but also in tree canopies. Looking for food, they use their bills to probe the ground or turn over clods of earth or small rocks.
The currawongs also play an important role in the propagation of alpine and semi-alpine plant species. They strip the shrubs of berries and then regurgitate the berry seeds, after devouring the flesh of the fruit. This makes these birds important seed dispersers. Among favourite foods are the mountain pink berry.
The currawongs are well known for their antics, their sense of fun and games.
Young birds especially engage in play behaviour, and currawongs have been observed wrestling with each other, with birds attempting to force an opponent on its back. Others have been reported rolling on their backs and juggling food, such as apples, with their feet.
Several readers of my “On the wing” column over the years have told me that the currawongs of Mount Nelson and Fern Tree in Hobart are particularly fond of taking pegs off washing lines, and then playing with them. And a reader described how his local currawongs had discovered the keys he hid near the front door, and had stolen them. He thought he had found a solution, placing the keys in a metal pot with a heavy lid, but was staggered to find later that one or more currawongs had prised off the lid, and made off with the keys again.
Habitat and distribution: Common throughout the highlands of Tasmania in subalpine forest and woodland, often moving to lower altitudes during the winter, when it can form flocks of up to 50 individuals. Diet: An opportunistic feeder, taking a wide range of food items, including lizards, mice, invertebrates and fruits. In areas frequented by people, the bird’s bold nature may lead it to snatch food from a person’s hand. Breeding: The nest is a large, bowl-shaped mass of sticks built in the branches of trees. Between two and four eggs are laid. Song: The call, distinctive of the Tasmanian highlands, sounds like a trumpet or chime, ringing, “kar-week—week-kar”. Size: 46-48.