The native hen is one of those creatures that looks like it doesn’t belong to the world of nature. It’s not the product of evolution but the cartoonist’s pen.
It joins the Roadrunner from Looney Tunes as being more at home on the screen than in the natural environment.
I look at the native hen in the same way I look at the eastern rosella. The rosella’s mix of crimson, green, yellow and white in its plumage is a contradiction of colour. It appears too disarming, too dazzling a display, and certainly does not mesh with the notion of camouflage, even if the iridescent blue secondary wing feathers evoke the leaves of blue gums on high summer days.
The native hen may be mute in colour but all the same it is a contradiction in shape and form. It appears too bulky and too top heavy to be a member of the elegant and languid rail family. Although it may look ungainly, because it is flightless it is capable of a surprisingly fast burst of speed. Perhaps this alone should gain it respect but once again the native hen in motion presents a series of outlines straight off the cartoonist’s drawing board. With head down, and feet whirling, the native hen is dubbed the “turbo chook” by Tasmanians. The species is commonly seen around the state’s premier raceway, Symmons Plains, and many a rev-head has said it would make an apt symbol for a race team, as powerful an image as the tiger for the Tasmanian cricket team.
Native hens are capable of running on long legs at speeds of 50 km/h, using the wings when running fast to help them maintain balance. Native hens are also strong swimmers, happily taking to water when threatened instead of running. When they sense danger they often flick their tail to warn others and if chased will seek the shelter of grass or reeds after the initial mad dash.
The native hen belongs to Tasmania, and being flightless it conforms to the environmental principle that, generally, sees birds on islands with no or few traditional enemies having no need to spread or use wings. Although this condition might not be unique to native hens, they display a behaviour that clearly sets them apart. The hens are believed to be alone in the kingdom of birds in displaying behaviour which determines females literally rule the roost. The females take a harem of young males and these young fellas attend to their every need, even helping to raise chicks of other suitors.
Before the Victorian mechanical age, the Tasmanian native hen was given the name “triabunna” by the indigenous Aboriginal people but mainland and foreign birdwatchers wanting to see the species do not have to visit the town of the same name on the state’s east coast. The species is the first endemic bird likely to be seen by visitors to Tasmania, either arriving by ferry at Devonport or at the Hobart airport. It frequents paddocks and grass verges along major highways, including the one linking Hobart airport to the city.
The native hen carries a livery of mossy green, infused with layers of weak blue and grey. Its beak, large and flattened like a fire iron, is painted in pastel yellow.
It ranges from the coast to areas 1000 metres above sea level. Like the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, and the Tasmanian devil, native hens became extinct on the mainland around the time the dingo arrived in Australia.
In Hobart itself, there are guaranteed sightings of native hens in the Waterworks Reserve. They breed in the reserve and for much of the year their calls ring out there both day and night.
The Tasmanian native hen has 14 separate calls, ranging from low grunts to high pitched alarm calls as well as a see-sawing duet performed in unison, rising to a crescendo of harsh screeching notes.
It is a curious and entertaining species, extremely tame in areas – like city parks and reserves – where it has not suffered persecution because of the supposed damage it does to crops in agricultural areas.
The native is a secondary grazer, depending on other species to keep grass swards low, with fresh shoots. They no doubt would have been attracted to grasslands burned by the Aboriginal peoples, a practice used to lure quarry like wallabies and pademelons. The creation of fields and paddocks by the European settlers also provided more habitat and food for the grazing hens. Unlike many flightless birds in other parts of the world, the native hen has benefitted from agriculture but at the same time this has brought the species into conflict with farmers. It was with some dismay that when I first arrived in Tasmania in 2001 I discovered that there was an open season on hunting native hens. The native hen was one of four bird species, and the only endemic one, to be offered no protection under Tasmanian environmental law. In 2007 the native hen was finally given protected status but the three others can still be hunted without permit. These are two species of cormorant – the great and little pied – and the forest raven.
In past times the native hen, like the yellow wattlebird, proved a source of food for Tasmanians, although the meat was said to be tough and sinewy. In Tasmanian folklore associated with the hen, a joke persists to this day about cooking the bird: you put them in a pot with a brick and when the brick is soft the native hen is ready to eat!
Habitat and distribution: Found on the fringes of forest, grass verges and fields and paddocks throughout Tasmania except the far south-west. Diet: Native hens usually feed at dawn and dusk on grasses and seeds. Insects are eaten by the young. Breeding: July to December, around five eggs although 9-10 is not uncommon. The eggs are dull yellow or buff to brown with some spotting of reddish brown and lavender. Native hens are also capable of producing more than one clutch per year. The nest is usually built on the ground or over water from grass, reeds or herbage. Song: Ranging from low grunts to high pitched alarm calls as well as a see-sawing duet performed in unison. Size: 43-51cm.