The Tasmanian native-hens at the end of my garden had been displaying the amorous side to their nature all night. Their mating ritual had started sometime just after midnight and the strangely rhythmic grunts and squawks finished at around 7am, just as the sun flooded the Waterworks Valley with light.
I was still a little bleary-eyed when I opened the Sunday Tasmanian later that morning to discover the native-hens were making headlines beyond their goings-on in my garden.
A report announcing that about 60 purely Tasmanian words had made it into the latest edition of the Australian National Dictionary included one for the native-hen, the narkie.
The blunt, hard-edged noun sort of sums up the bird – not that mainland Australians would have a name for it because the native-hen, like many of the quirks of the Tasmanian lexicon, belongs solely to these islands.
The native-hen is familiar to all Tasmanians, of course. There is another name for it – the turbo-chook – which no doubt in time will also make its way into the dictionary.
I haven’t been able to determine why the native-hen should be called the narkie – perhaps it’s just a shortened version of its common name – but the term turbo-chook is easy to relate to this flightless bird’s surprising turn of speed. The native-hen is capable of running on long legs at speeds of 50 km/h, splaying its wings when travelling fast to balance itself when it makes sharp, zig-zag turns to escape predators.
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 is not only notable for being one of 12 birds exclusive to Tasmania but for its social behaviour in which females in many cases eschew mature males, instead taking a harem of young suitors.
Because birds are so obvious, always forming a backdrop to our everyday lives, it is not surprising they are often given local names.
The black currawong, also endemic to Tasmania, is called the black jay in more rural areas outside the cities. Although also found on the mainland, the grey fantail is called the cranky fan here. The name derives from its nervous, hyper-active flight in pursuit of flying insects.
Another mainland species, the migratory black-faced cuckoo-shrike, also changes its identity when it hits Tasmanian shores after crossing Bass Strait in spring. Here this beautiful, elegant species is called the summerbird, because it usually arrives in early September.
The summerbird has a unique contact call. I can only describe it as the sound of someone shuffling a pack of playing cards, and I listen for it at the start of spring. It’s soothing, unlike the rasping of the narkie.
In my own regional dialect, that of the Londoner, “nark” in the Cockney tongue signifies either a police informer or someone being of extreme annoyance. In my book, Narkie falls into the latter category.