Birds do not gamble in the lottery of life. Although their movements and behaviour might appear random, they do not live on a wing and a prayer.
Every move is deliberate and calculated to ensure survival for such seemingly frail and vulnerable creatures in an often hostile world.
The certainties of bird behaviour have certainly been put to the test, however, by a family of Tasmanian native-hens who have made their home in an area that would appear unconducive to their existence – the grounds of the Wrest Point Casino on Sandy Bay Rd.
Native hens are usually to be found in open country, more often than not in field and paddock. The closest they come to central Hobart is along the watercourses penetrating the city, the banks of the Sandy Bay and Hobart Rivulets.
Native hens – found nowhere else in the world apart from Tasmania – are flightless and so the rivulets and their grassy margins provide suitable avenues for their movements. But the grounds of the Wrest Point Casino? It poses the question of how they got there, and why this location should be so attractive to them? How could these insect and seed eaters find sustenance in the casino grounds?
I was alerted to the presence of the native hens by Chris Pearce, the owner of the Hobart Bookshop in Salamanca Square. Chris over the years has been one of my many “eyes and ears”, readers who give me interesting bird sightings as gist for my bird-writing mill. He had seen the native-hens on his walk to work, along with more commonly seen pied oystercatchers on the narrow beach to the south of the casino, and black-faced and pied cormorants drying their wings on the jetties that reach into the Derwent from there.
I saw three native-hens when I visited the site, a female being courted by two males, although there could be more birds in this group. Native-hens are remarkable in the bird world in forming a matriarchal society, in which eager young males often pay attention to a lone female.
This behaviour, in fact, proves one of the rare instances in the entire animal kingdom when females enlist males, who might not be the fathers of their offspring, to help rear their young, and the males are willing participants to being surrogate parents.
To reach the casino grounds the native-hens would have had to cross the Sandy Bay Rd or possibly could have “migrated “ along the coast from more open ground at upper Sandy Bay. All the same they would have had to cross a busy road, perhaps not such a big problem for fast-running birds which also go by the affectionate term of “turbo-chooks”.
Certainly the native-hens in the search for new hunting grounds, and a new experience, were prepared to throw caution to the wind. Gamblers after all, the chance of a flutter for a flightless bird to temping to resist?