The yellow wattlebird is one of those species like the dusky robin and the Tasmanian scrubwren which peppers the long and winding road to Tasmania’s modern, settler history.
The wattlebird appears prominently in the historical record, not so much as a curiosity but for its large size and diet of native fruits and berries which made it a popular game bird.
This largest member of the Australian honeyeater family was shot for the pot during hard times experienced by the early settlers and Tasmanian workers struggling during the great depression.
I had learned from my early bird travels around Tasmania that the wattlebird had been on the Tasmanian diet in times past and it was confirmed when I wrote an “On the Wing” column retracing the steps of the central character in The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.
The Booker Prize-winning novelist had joked there was some “twitching” in the book for the birdwatcher when he had signed a copy for me at its launch and I soon found myself on the narrow roads around Cleveland in Tasmania’s Midlands, “drinking in the songs”, as Flanagan put it, of grey shrike-thrushes, musk lorikeets, fairywrens and honeyeaters.
The column prompted correspondence with the family of an old miner who had worked the coalmines in the Fingal Valley in central Tasmania. The family had asked me to write a column specifically about yellow wattlebirds, which they said featured in much local folklore, including their own. In turn, they went into detail about wattlebird hunting. The birds made great eating in a pie, I was told, because they fed primarily on honey and nectar in spring and summer, and wild fruits at other times, and so were much sought-after as a food supply, even if their meat was considered an acquired taste.
The family in their letter included the recollections of their father, now in his nineties. “He ate them. They were baked. A friend used to take them to the coalmine where Dad worked in the late 1940s at Mount Nicholas. They shared them at ‘crib’ time. Nothing like a bird mixed with coal dust!”
They confirmed the wattlebirds were cooked in pies after being shot, four to eight at a time. “I suppose it depended on supply and the size of family which was mostly quite large by today’s standards.
“Dad says the wattlebirds were tasty but a bit ‘birdy’.”
There are 67 members of the honeyeater family in Australia but the yellow wattlebird is by far the largest – at up to 55 centimetres – and perhaps is the most interesting.
The bird gets its name from the long, yellow and orange wattles that hang down from both sides of its beak. When I first saw the wattlebirds after my arrival in Tasmania in the late 1990s, I must say I found them a little incongruous because of the wattles. The birds are straight out of central casting, as though portraying argumentative and haughty Victorian dowagers with pendant earrings in a television costume drama. Each spring, however, when their plumage and wattles are in full flush, I see them in a different light.
They are curiously attractive birds, with a white face and black-streaked crown. The upperparts are grey to dusky brown, and their breasts are a streaked grey-white. There is also a yellow abdominal patch. The wattles, the stand-out feature, become brighter during the breeding season.
Not only is the wattlebird noted from its curious appearance but it also has a raucous, guttural call, which is a familiar sound of the Hobart suburbs. Unlike most Tasmanian bird songs, it is not pleasant to the ear. It is described on the Parks and Wildlife website as like “someone vomiting”. Among birders in Tasmania it is known as the “chuck bird”.
Although the yellow wattlebird can be found right across Hobart and its suburbs, I tend to see them most commonly in the Knocklofty Reserve just three kilometres from the city centre.
A slow walk from the car park and observation deck at the end of Forest Road in West Hobart, along the track to the frog ponds to the north-east, a sighting is virtually guaranteed.
The yellow wattlebird feeds more or less exclusively on the pollen and nectar from native trees and shrubs and there is always plenty of food contained in blooms for them at Knocklofty, either in spring for into autumn and winter when silver banksias are in flower.
In autumn the silver banksias along this track can provide a treat for both birders and wattlebirds, with yellow wattlebirds and the smaller brush wattlebird fighting over the precious food these late-flowering shrubs produce. There is a cluster of silver banksias close to the lookout from the spot where Victorian artist John Glover painted his famous view of Hobart Town in 1865.
Yellow wattlebirds are active and acrobatic at all times. Flight is shallow and undulating with heavy wing beats. Wattlebirds are prolific feeders because they need vast supplies of food to fuel their large bodies. They defend feeding sites aggressively against the smaller honeyeaters.
Other places to find them in Hobart are at the Waterworks Reserve and on the Queens Domain.
I always tell mainland and overseas birders arriving in Hobart to first take the short walk to the Domain, if they are staying in the city centre. This can reveal all four of the endemic honeyeaters.
A pair of visiting birdwatchers I met at the Waterworks Reserve in early spring said they had two reasons to visit Tasmania – one was to see the yellow wattlebird, and the other to tour the Museum of Old and New Art.
The next day they managed to kill two birds with one stone at Berriedale, so to speak. The birdwatchers from Sydney had seen a pair of noisy and active yellow wattlebirds in trees bordering the MONA café.
Habitat and distributon: the yellow wattlebird occurs singularly or in pairs in eucalypt forest and woodland. It is a common species, often seen in gardens. Diet: Chiefly nectar, berries and fruits but it also takes insects for protein. Breeding: The nest is large, cup-shaped and is comprised of twigs, bark and leaves and is lined with feathers. It is placed high within a tree or shrub. Two or three eggs are laid. Song: A loud, guttural sound. Size: 44-50cm, the female yellow wattlebird is much smaller than the male.