Bird of the month

Bird of the Month: December 2023

Friday, 1 December 2023

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Bird of the Month — Grey Butcherbird

The beautiful melodious song of the Grey Butcherbird can be heard across most of Australia. Some people say that its beautiful song is shaded by the mellow, lilting notes of the Pied Butcherbird, but it is among Australia’s loveliest songs anyway.

And when singing, Grey Butcherbirds have a special talent, singing in duets, but it’s no ordinary duet: it’s called ‘antiphonal singing’, where the two birds coordinate their songs so incredibly accurately that it sounds like a single bird is singing.

Some Grey Butcherbirds, for example, sing a melodious tune that sounds very much like “whistle while you work”. This is answered by a second bird with “tool-to-tool”, all of the same note, to which the first bird responds with a lilting “tool-till-tooool”, and then the second bird repeats “tool-to-tool”. It all flows so easily that it sounds like a single call. Magic!

However, they sometimes add to the complexity of this behaviour. The same Grey Butcherbirds may sometimes make their song even more elaborate by including more than two birds in their antiphonal singing. Sometimes three butcherbirds can be heard singing antiphonally (and once five birds were recorded all singing together!). It was easy to tell which bird was singing — each waggled its tail rapidly from side to side while it sang. First, one bird sang “whistle while you work” and it was answered by the other two birds simultaneously; the third phrase was then given by the first bird, and the other two answered together once more, duetting in perfect unison. Because of their exquisite timing, to hear it you’d never realise that it was more than one bird warbling away.

However, there’s another, more sinister side to Grey Butcherbirds. In contrast to the beauty of their song, during breeding season, especially when their chicks have fledged recently, they can become extremely belligerent — far more than their famously swooping cousins, the magpie.

Before attacking you, the butcherbird first fixes you with an intimidating stare, accompanied by a warning cackle, then it flies directly towards your face with intent to strike. If you’re lucky, it veers out of the way just in time, in which case it may attack time and time again, chortling all the while. If it doesn’t veer out of the way, you’ll discover that its hooked beak is quite an effective weapon!

Apart from attacking people, the butcherbird’s hooked beak is used to catch insects and small invertebrates, often snatched after the bird pounces onto the ground; sometimes they feed in the trees, plucking the chicks of silvereyes, thornbills and other small birds from their nests.

Grey Butcherbirds often catch more food than they need, and they store it in branches of trees and shrubs, usually carefully wedged into a forked twig or impaled on a thorn or other sharp protuberance — likened to the carcases hanging up in a butcher shop’s window. They may return to this stash of food again and again, taking only as much as they need.

And that storage method, if you were wondering, is why they’re called ‘butcherbirds’!

If you’d like to find out where you can hear two or more Grey Butcherbirds singing antiphonally, check out BirdLife Australia’s Birdata website.