The internationally acclaimed Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart is being described as “wild and wacky” in the publicity material directed at mainlanders to announce Mona’s re-opening on Boxing Day after lockdown. The same can be said of Tasmania’s birds. Where else would you find the “turbo chook” and the “chuck bird”?
Most, if not all, of Tasmania’s endemic species would sit well as exhibits at Mona, if not just for their curiosity, for their sublime beauty. Although David Attenborough of wildlife documentary fame has often highlighted the colourful birds of the tropics in his programs, Tasmania can boast of a stunning beauty of its own – the shy and gentle green rosella, a parrot mixing greens of various shades, yellows and blues, plus a splash of red in its plumage. In the high country of the state, it’s called the mountain parrot.
In the same way Mona is a must-see for national and international modern art lovers, the same can be said of Tasmania for the bird-watching community. Tasmania is a popular destination for both international and Australian mainland birders because it has 12 endemic species – the largest number for any comparable area of Australia – and what is remarkable is that 11 of them can be found within the Hobart municipality, and the twelfth, the forty-spotted pardalote, a short distance away on Bruny Island.
Each of these species is enmeshed in Tasmanian folklore, born of their exclusivity to the island, of time and place. They perch along the long and winding road to not only Tasmania’s settler history – just 200 years of it – but to the Aboriginal past spanning the millennia.
The dusky robin, for instance, is also called the “stump bird”, a name that dates back to early European settlement when the robin perched on the stumps of felled trees. The Tasmanian native-hen’s nickname of “turbo chook” dates from more recent times, after the invention of the motor-vehicle. The name derives from the flightless species’ turn of speed when it runs from danger.
The magnificent yellow wattlebird – the largest of the honeyeaters with yellow-orange wattles dangling from its head – has the unfortunate name of “chuck bird” because, as the birding field guides state, its guttural, raucous call sounds like someone “retching or vomiting”.
Beyond the endemic species already mentioned, the others are: the Tasmanian thornbill and scrubwren, the scrubtit, the yellow-throated, black-headed and strong-billed honeyeater, black currawong, and forty-spotted pardalote.
What also makes Tasmania popular with birders is that 11 of these unique species can be seen in easy reach of Hobart, at the Waterworks Reserve. The forty-spot can be spotted with ease on Bruny Island.
And if visitors miss the turbo-chook at the Waterworks, it can be ticked off in the grounds of what appears to be its natural habitat – MONA at Berridale.