IT’S that time of the year when Tasmanians traversing yellow-throated honeyeater territory are advised to wear a hat. It can come as a shock when the honeyeaters land on unprotected heads and proceed to tug at tufts of hair.
Startled outdoor types can be forgiven for asking: what the hell is going on? Yellowthroats, as they are popularly known among birdwatchers, have a simple answer: they mean no harm, but merely want human hair to line their nests at the start of the breeding season.
I was surprised to hear of the yellow-throat behaviour when I first arrived in Tasmania many years ago. And equally startled to have my own locks stolen by a honeyeater on Mt Wellington in 2012. The cheek of it.
I am familiar with birds collecting discarded hair for their nests in spring but have no knowledge of a bird actually stealing hair from a walking, talking person. It makes the honeyeaters unique for two reasons: not only are they the world’s only hair stealers, they are also found nowhere else on earth but the island state.
Despite what might appear anti-social behaviour, the yellowthroat is none the less beloved of Tasmanians. So much so, the species forms the official emblem of BirdLife Tasmania, and for good reason. It is one of the state’s most familiar and beautiful birds, and it is trusting of humans.
I suppose the yellowthroat’s unusual hair-stealing behaviour originated with the bird’s association with the millions of grey kangaroos and Bennett’s wallabies which were the original big mammals on the island before the arrival of humans.
I wonder if the Aborigines experienced the hair-stealing phenomenon after they first arrived in Tasmania 400,00 years ago. I’ve not heard of it in Aboriginal folklore and it could be the honeyeater behaviour only started after the arrival of Europeans. This saw a sharp decline in native animals from which to steal hair when land-clearing associated with European settlement took hold. Perhaps only then did the honeyeaters turn their attention to domestic animals, and in turn the humans accompanying them in the paddocks.
The yellowthroat might not be as showy as some of the other members of the family found in Tasmania, and even more showy species on the mainland, but it has an understated, subtle beauty that somehow matches the verdant colour of the Tasmanian islands.
It is a medium-sized bird, up to 21cm, with rich olive-green plumage on the wings and back and speckled yellow-grey underparts. The dark grey crown and face contrasts with a rich yellow chin and throat. Females are smaller than males. Young birds are very similar to adults, but duller overall.
Yellowthroats are usually seen singly or in pairs, often foraging on the trunks or foliage of large trees. Preferred habitat is wet and dry eucalypt forest, alpine woodland and coastal heath. The yellowthroats are also commonly seen in gardens and parks in Hobart and I always tell visiting birdwatchers, if they can’t be found there, sightings are guaranteed on Knocklofty and in the Waterworks Reserve. The yellow-throated honeyeater feeds mainly on seasonally available insects and nectar and, occasionally, on fruit and seeds. It feeds at all levels of the canopy. Males hold territories year-round, defending them against others of their own species as well as other birds – particularly other honeyeaters.
The species breeds from August to December, and lays two to three spotted pinkish eggs in a cup-shaped nest made from closely woven grass, bark and spider-webs. The nest, which is built by the female, is usually within a metre of the ground among dense shrubs. The honeyeater has a variety of calls – many of them unrecorded for birdsong CDs – and its singing has caused me many a frustrating hour or so in the bush, trying to seek out a species that might be new to my checklist. After much searching I have merely come across a yellowthroat with a new song. The species is very vocal throughout the year, and is best known for a song I can only describe as a “chuckle” repeated as a quick-fire staccato sound. In my case, the chuckle followed the plucking of my hair!