I like Currawongs. I don’t think that’s a very popular position. They’re easy birds to dislike. They’re not particularly attractive: they’re large (up to fifty centimetres long) and fairly drab, they don’t have a beautiful song, and in cities such as Canberra and Sydney they’re common as muck.
They’re notorious nest-predators, too, and even worse than that is the fact that one of their favourite species to prey upon is the Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), a universally beloved Australian bird and an animal so adorable that even Sir David Attenborough has mentioned it as one of his favourites. When I was very young, so young that now I can barely remember it, my family used to care for injured native birds, nursing them back to health in a cage until they could be released back into the wild. When once we were caring for a pair of Magpie-larks (Grallina cyanoleuca), we placed the cage on the balcony outside my parents’ bedroom so that they could hear and call to their wild kin. Back then there was a large blackwood tree which overhung the balcony and which until the day it was cut down would serve as a sanctuary for all manner of birds. Pied Currawongs in particular had a fondness for resting in the deep shadows beneath the tree’s thick canopy. When a group of them saw the two young Magpie-larks in the cage under the blackwood’s overhanging branches, they wasted no time in descending upon the cage and pulling the defenceless birds through the bars, and killing and eating them. How could anyone like such an animal?
And yet – on another occasion we had a baby Currawong in that cage, and when the wild Currawongs descended they again reached through the bars of the cage – to feed the bird. They nurtured that bird back to health as much as anybody in my family did. They recognised it as one of their own, and they looked after it accordingly.
There are three species of Currawong, of which the Pied Currawong is by some distance the most common and the most successfully adapted to urban life. It’s found down the entire length of Australia’s eastern seaboard, except in Tasmania which is home instead to the Black Currawong (Strepera fuliginosa). Meanwhile, overlapping both of these species to some degree but also spreading across the south of the continent all the way to the west coast is the Grey Currawong (Strepera versicolor), which though not uncommon is probably the least-seen of the Currawongs due to its more solitary habits and greater reluctance to come out of the forests and into cities. The Pied Currawong, by contrast, comes into cities readily. I’ve only very recently started seeing and hearing Pied Currawongs in Melbourne, but in Canberra where I grew up it’s one of the most common birds.
It shouldn’t be quite as common as it is in Canberra or in Sydney, the two cities in which it's most prominent. Originally the Pied Currawong was a winter visitor to those cities, when it would migrate down from the mountains where it spent summer. However, Currawongs are nothing if not opportunistic, and humans have ensured that there’s more than enough food year-round to keep them fed. They’re omnivorous, and in Canberra one of their favourite foods is the berries of the Cottoneaster, an introduced plant which grows freely in Canberra and, crucially for the Currawongs, fruits in winter.
When I was at university there was a push to kill off the Cottoneasters in Canberra, and shortly thereafter I saw one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen: a migration of Currawongs. I was outside in the evening hanging out some washing, and I heard the calling of a group of Currawongs above me. I’d heard this many times before – but this was unmistakably different: I looked up and saw Currawong after Currawong, a seemingly endless flock of them, hundreds of them, flying against the dusk sky and all heading in the same direction. I’ve never saw such a sight since.
Although it can be a solitary bird it’s not unusual to see Currawongs in groups, but the groups are usually small. In particular they seem to group together in the evening, and one of my fondest memories is of sitting in the down-market Canberra suburb of Woden one evening and hearing the Currawongs call to each other across buildings and roads. Currawongs have an broad but firmly set repertoire of calls - from one of which derives their wonderfully onomatopoeic name - with slight but noticeable variations between populations in different parts of the country. If you’re attuned to the calls of the Currawongs in your area it really is impossible to avoid the idea that you’re listening to a vocabulary of some kind, made up of a number of clearly distinct phrases, and hearing the calls change when you go interstate is like hearing a regional accent.
It’s generally accepted now that birds evolved from dinosaurs. It’s a difficult idea to get your head around, but if you ever get a chance you should take a close look at a bird’s legs: with the scaled, bubbly skin and the long, sharp claws suddenly you can imagine that you’re looking at a creature from millions of years ago. The legs of a bird are so utterly unlike the rest of the animal that it’s impossible once you’ve taken a good look at them to look at the animal the same way again. Of all the bird species I’ve seen and watched over the years, there’s not a single one that seems more dinosaur-like to me than the Pied Currawong. It’s not entirely due to the bird: the film of Jurassic Park was a massive cultural icon of my childhood and with their long, thick beaks, semi-horizontal posture and watchful eyes Currawongs look more than a little like the Velociraptors of that film.
But lest you think that’s too frightening a comparison, let me make another: Currawongs remind me a lot of Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes). They’ve got the same kind of cleverness, the same watchful cunning. They’re less afraid of humans than are other birds, and if you live in an area with a lot of Currawongs it’s not uncommon to find yourself face-to-face with one. If you ever get the chance, look a Currawong right in the eyes: you’ll find in those incredible yellow eyes an animal that’s considering you as closely as you’re considering it, and even if just for a moment you may feel yourself in the presence of another mind, and another intelligence, alien and yet strangely familiar.
Image sourced from http://www.environment.gov.au/