The blackbird might top the list as the most frequently seen bird in suburban gardens but I’ve discovered it is also very much on the radar of some of the not-so-friendly birds that also make our gardens their home.
If a garden species is to fall victim to the talons of a bird of prey, or the claws of a butcherbird, more than likely it will be this elegant songster that originally hailed from Britain.
The Mercury last month carried a report highlighting the importance of the annual Aussie Bird Count which took place in the third week of October and I was intrigued to read the list of the most common garden birds published by the newspaper. But at the same time my attention was drawn to the largely unseen, and unrecorded, predators which stalk our grevilleas and bottlebrushes.
I was sent a gruesome picture of a blackbird, hanging by the neck, wedged in the fork of a small tree. The perpetrator of this garden crime was a grey butcherbird, of course. The killing had all the hallmarks of this species which belongs in the magpie, currawong and woodswallow family.
As its name suggests, the butcherbird not only kills and eats birds on the spot but also stores its kill so it will have a handy meal at a later stage.
The name of butcherbird was originally given to members of a totally different family of birds found in the Old World with the same behaviour of using a “larder” to store their food. In Europe and Africa, the shrikes – as they are known there along with another term, “jacky hangman” – usually impale their prey on the thorns of hawthorn or acacias. In my experience, the butcherbirds of Australia prefer to wedge their victims in the fork of a tree or shrub, but that might just be in my or neighbouring gardens.
The Aussie Bird Count is supposed to be about the beauty and wonder of birds, and is principally an activity to spark an interest in garden species, especially among children. But we cannot escape the reality of what can happen in the garden. When we enter our gardens, we also enter a parallel universe where the rules of our sanitised, sheltered world do not necessarily apply.
All the same, the recommended period of time spent in the garden to compile the count – about 20 minutes – is not likely to reveal any unsocial or brutal behaviour on behalf of our usually elusive predators.
This was only the second year of the bird count but it is already proving popular, and no doubt the number of participants will grow in coming years.
I spent a little longer in my garden than the 20 minutes specified, and so my checklist of birds spotted was a little more dramatic that the average.
Yes, I ticked off all the birds mentioned in the Mercury report plus a second parrot species beyond the green rosella mentioned. This was a yellow-tailed black cockatoo but I didn’t see the swift parrots which sometimes pass through the Waterworks Valley, where my home is situated in Dynnyrne, at this time of year.
During the count, participants were invited to send their observations to the organisers by way of an app. which could be downloaded from the website, aussiebird count.org.au, and I urge readers to note the address so they can participate next year. If the count is done with family and friends, or neighbours, it can be great fun.
The count is also a way of helping scientists keep track of the growth or decline of common bird species. During the week the most counted birds for Tasmania were the blackbird, house sparrow, superb fairy-wren, new holland honeyeater, common starling, masked lapwing, forest raven, yellow wattlebird and welcome swallow.
I was on holiday in South Africa for the early part of the spring and so this year’s bird count gave me a chance to catch up with some of the summer visitors I had missed when they first arrived at the start of September.
So I was please to add welcome swallows, tree martins and fan-tailed and pallid cuckoos to my list. And I was equally grateful the butcherbird that made my garden his home this winter – scaring the hell out of the blackbirds and sparrows – had moved on to a new hunting ground.