The call of the black currawong is the sound of the mountains in Tasmania, the trumpet song ringing out from the highest peaks.
It is the bird visiting bird-watchers most want to see and every time I receive requests from tourists, and their local hosts, to tell them where to find the species I wonder why it should be number one on the birders’ list.
To me, another bird associated with the high country, the green rosella, is far more exciting, but perhaps that’s because I have a special fascination with parrots which stems from the time I first saw them in pet shops when I was growing up in my native Britain.
The currawong, however, is not exclusive to the high country in Tasmania and a hike in the mountains, or a drive to Cradle Mountain where they harass tourists in the car park of Dove Lake, is not necessary to find them. They can easily be found around Fern Tree on the lower slopes of Mt Wellington, at the Springs half way up and at the summit. Sometimes they turn up just a few kilometres from Hobart, in the Waterworks Reserve, and can always be found on Bruny Island.
Tasmania, although mountainous, does not have any species that can be described as truly alpine, unlike New Zealand which has its famous mountain parrot, the kea. The closest we get to a bird of the peaks is the currawong and the green rosella. For the record, the black currawong is also called the “mountain jay” in Tasmania, and the green rosella the “mountain parrot”.
The currawong’s call is like a chime ringing “kar-week-week-kar” around the peaks but for some people visiting the high country it can be very grating. The pioneering naturalist John Gould described it as a “hand organ out of tune”.
The black currawong can look dramatic with its giant beak and menacing yellow eye, but it actually goes about its business in the mountains without drama and display; it is workmanlike and industrious, highly intelligent and inventive. It has to be to survive in its harsh environment, without coming to lower ground where it might clash and compete for food with its cousin, the grey currawong, a bigger species which is also found on the mainland.
The two species are easily told apart, although the sub-species of grey currawong also found in Tasmania is actually black in colour. The grey currawong, however, has an even bigger beak that the endemic species and has white “windows” in its wings, as opposed to the white wingtips of the Tasmanian one. The grey currawong also has white feathers beneath the tail, perhaps its most distinguishing feature.
Currawongs are omnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of foodstuffs including insects and small vertebrates, carrion, and berries. Birds forage on the ground most often, but also in tree canopies. Looking for food, they use their bills to probe the ground or turn over clods of earth or small rocks.
The currawongs are well known for their antics, their sense of fun and games.
Young birds especially engage in play behaviour, and currawongs have been observed wrestling with each other, with birds attempting to force an opponent on its back. Others have been reported rolling on their backs and juggling food, such as apples, with their feet.
I’ve had several readers over the years tell me that the currawongs of Mt Nelson and Fern Tree are particularly fond of taking pegs off washing lines, and then playing with them. And a reader described how his local currawongs had discovered the keys he hid near the front door, and had stolen them. He thought he had found a solution, placing the keys in a metal pot with a heavy lid but was staggered to find later that one or more currawongs had prised off the lid, and made off with the keys again.