Tuesday, 31 October 2023
Australia is the land of birds, home to over 800 species as fascinating as they are diverse. Some, by human standards, are also pretty freaky – even inspiring ghost stories and ancient mythology.
In the spirit of Halloween, we’re profiling five of Australia’s kookiest and spookiest birds.
Read on – if you dare!
Many know butcherbirds for their beautiful rollicking call – a familiar soundtrack to suburban areas and open forests and woodlands across southern Australia. But don’t let their melodious song fool you – as their name suggests, the Grey Butcherbird is a fearsome predator with a particularly gruesome ritual.
From an open perch, Grey Butcherbirds watch for an unsuspecting insect, lizard, small bird or mammal. Once sighted, they pounce onto their prey on the ground, using their long, hook-tipped bill.
Then – and here comes the gory part – butcherbirds often then impale their meal on a sharp twig, thorn or barbed wire, securing it so they can hack away at the meat like a butcher. They’re also known to stash uneaten food there or in the fork of a tree or other crevice (known as a ‘larder’), to be eaten later. Butcherbird by name, butcherbird by nature!
Earlier this year, a lone bushwalker in the Kimberley stumbled upon a strange structure littered with animal bones. When he posted his photos to social media, thousands of people responded – many with horror and confusion. This outback lair was, in fact, the bower of a male Great Bowerbird – a master of illusion and an avid collector of bones and other pale-coloured objects.
Like other bowerbirds, male Great Bowerbirds go to great lengths to impress a potential mate – but with a twist. He builds his own theatre to perform in – an intricate bower made from twigs, with a surrounding ‘courtyard’, which he decorates with hundreds or even thousands of objects, including sun-bleached bones, rocks, green fruits, leaves and snail shells. Then, he casts his spell.
He carefully arranges each object according to its size, with the smallest items closes to the entrance of the bower and the largest further away. This creates an optical illusion – all objects appear the same size, making him appear bigger than he really is!
If his magic act lands, the female Great Bowerbird will approach the bower and stay for the show – watching as he struts noisily about, flashing his brilliant, bubble-gum pink crest and waving colourful objects at her in his beak.
For thousands of years, the deep booming call of the Australasian Bittern was thought to be the cry of the Bunyip – a terrifying, man-eating creature from Aboriginal and colonial mythology that lurked in creeks, swamps, billabongs, riverbeds and waterholes.
Male Australasian Bitterns produce this eerie sound during the breeding season to attract females and intimidate rival males – or scare anyone who doesn’t know what a bittern is!
With its neck outstretched, an Australasian Bittern can stand over a metre tall, but despite their size, they’re masters of disguise, more often heard than they are seen. Their streaked brown plumage helps them disappear in plain sight among their reedy wetland habitat, and when alarmed, they freeze – standing still with their neck stretched upwards, or even swaying in sync with the surrounding reeds.
Owls are the ultimate creatures of the night. With their piercing stare, swivelling necks, haunting cries and silent wings, owls have long been associated with Halloween and are steeped in mythology and superstition in many cultures around the world. The Barn Owl – the most widespread and familiar owl – is no exception and is often (and unfairly) considered a bad omen or harbinger of death or disease.
Owls like Barn Owls are designed for darkness and are uniquely adapted to hunting by night. Their huge, forward-facing eyes technically aren’t eyeballs – they’re more like tubes. These elongated, rod-shaped eyes provide extraordinary binocular and nocturnal vision and are held in place by a bony structure in the skull (called sclerotic rings). Since they can’t move their eyes, owls have evolved the rather unnerving ability to rotate their necks up to 270°.
The Barn Owl’s characteristic heart-shaped facial disk acts like a satellite dish, collecting and focusing sound waves to their ears – which are asymmetrical in size and location to help them pinpoint the exact location of their prey. And like other owls, the unique structure and form of their wing feathers allow for near-silent flight by streamlining the air flow and absorbing the sound produced. Often, it’s only the Barn Owl’s call – a series of spine-tingling shrieks and hisses – that gives this forest phantom away.
With their eerie, wailing call – often likened to that of a screaming woman or baby – the Bush Stone-Curlew is another Australian bird shrouded in mythology.
In many Aboriginal cultures, these strange nocturnal, ground-dwelling birds are closely associated with death and appear in many Dreamtime stories. In the Tiwi Creation story of Purrukapali, a grieving mother becomes a Bush Stone-Curlew, crying out for her lost child.
During the day, Bush Stone-Curlews hide in plain sight thanks to their cryptic plumage. If disturbed, they freeze – and will often squat with their head outstretched to avoid detection among the leaf litter.
Subscribe for the latest conservation news, upcoming events, opportunities, and special offers.