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"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Sunday, August 14, 2011

15) Tawny Frogmouth

Podargus strigoides

Since moving to Melbourne in 2004 I’ve seen three Tawny Frogmouths.  This might not sound so impressive if you don’t know what a Tawny Frogmouth is; but if you understand even just the basic facts about the animal, you may appreciate exactly why I’ve greeted each sighting with great surprise and excitement.

Frogmouths are closely related to Nightjars (Caprimulgidae), and less closely related to Owls (Order Strigiformes).  Humans are prone to trying to make sense of things by relating them to other things with which they are already familiar, which presumably is why Frogmouths are so named: by bird standards they have quite a broad beak, which with a certain stretch of the imagination could be taken to resemble the mouth of a Frog (Order Anura).  Every bird’s beak is very precisely adapted to that species’ or group’s particular diet, and in the case of Frogmouths that diet is insects.  Long bristles arrayed around the edge of the beak are a further adaptation to catching insects, one which is common to many insect-catching birds.  There are three species of Frogmouth in Australia, all belonging to the genus Podargus, and their beaks are even broader than those of Frogmouths from other parts of the world – so perhaps it’s not surprising that in addition to insects they’ve been known to occasionally catch and eat small vertebrates.

From reading which birds they’re related to you may already have guessed that Frogmouths are nocturnal, and if you don’t know anything else about Frogmouths you might reasonably suppose that that is why they’re so rarely seen – yet in fact the opposite is true: if you’re ever likely to see a Frogmouth it’s going to be after dark.  The reason for this is that Frogmouths are among the most extraordinarily well-camouflaged of all birds.  During the day, or when threatened, they’ll straighten their necks and shut their eyes tight, and in such a posture they look so exactly like the stump of a tree branch that even if you know a Frogmouth is there and were looking at it only moments ago it can be almost impossible to identify it once it’s decided to go “cryptic” up in a tree.

Which is not to say that they’re very much easier to see at night, however.  Compared to Owls, the Tawny Frogmouth has a very quiet call, which while you can hear it clearly if you should happen to be in close proximity to the bird is not likely to disturb you from afar.  You’re not going to hear a Tawny Frogmouth calling from the depths of a forest in the middle of the night and go searching for it.  The most likely way you’re going to see a Tawny Frogmouth is simply by stumbling across it.

So, the Tawny Frogmouth is an animal which is far from uncommon, which in fact is well-established even in the middle of a large city such as Melbourne, and yet which is so rarely seen that each time I’ve spotted one it’s been tantamount to an event.  What a rich metaphor that would all make – and one the like of which I’ve utilised more than once on this blog.  Indeed, I suppose that from the name on down the whole purpose of this blog is to draw attention to those creatures with which we unknowingly share our lives.

Yet in the several thousand words I’ve written for this blog so far, I wonder how much I truly have noticed any of the animals I’ve written about.  I think the very phrase “noticing animals” – by implication the opposite of not noticing animals – suggests some degree of investigation into the nature of the animal itself, some attempt to come to terms with it in its own right.  Not simply noticing the creature itself, but becoming aware of its being.

I believe that there is a real connection between humans and other animals, and that that connection is both intrinsic and profound.  I think I’ve made that clear on this blog (if never before quite so concisely).  I truly believe that a root cause of so many of the environmental threats we humans have inflicted on the planet is that we fail to see ourselves as part of that environment: that we see nature, and animals, as something apart from ourselves.  Humans tend to elevate themselves above other animals, both unconsciously and very knowingly (see, for instance, God’s direction in Genesis that humankind shall “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth”).  This is understandable, in fact I think this is probably natural: every animal is fundamentally and necessarily self-interested.  Humans, though, have the ability to rationalise our thoughts, and to order them, and to question them, and I think it really does take very little effort to recognise a commonality with other animals, and from there achieve empathy.

There’s a difference, though, between empathising with another animal, and co-opting that animal’s behaviour for your own needs.  I wonder if, in trying to reach the former through this blog, I’ve been guilty of the latter.  I wonder if I’ve overburdened the majority of the animals I’ve so far discussed here, by asking them to carry the weight of my ponderings about human society, and human concerns, and things which are really quite far removed from the daily lives of the animals themselves.  I fear that I may, in some way, have disrespected the animals thus far featured on this blog, by not allowing them to be an end in themselves, by forcing them to be a vehicle for supposedly loftier thoughts.

I shan’t stop, though.  Regardless of any doubts I may have I enjoy writing this blog, and I enjoy the opportunity it presents me to discuss – in whatever capacity – animals that I love.  And, let’s be honest, in this age perhaps more than in any other we’re all clamouring to make our opinions heard, we’ve all been led to believe that what we have to say is of fundamental importance.  I’m no less susceptible to that than anybody else, and this blog is my small podium in the vastness of the internet.

Still, just for now let me leave the Tawny Frogmouth in peace.  Let it disappear back into the night observed, appreciated, and wholly of itself – no more and no less than that.

Image sourced from


  1. I was thinking the other day as I walked past a magpie striding across the grass that birds and humans live parallel lives - the magpie glanced in my direction, knowing I wasn't a threat, and just carried on, as I did.I often say hello to magpies, and occasionally they carol - but is it in response, or just because they are feeling cheerful?

  2. I love Tawny Frogmouths. When I was in Year 10 and completing my Work Experience at a local wildlife reserve, I was given the task of feeding the birds. Most of it was seed and fruit salad and a porridgey cakey mush we blended up back at the hut, but when it came to feeding the frogmouths I was presented with a handful of dead mice and told to just leave them on the big log in the centre of the cage.
    "Huh," I said to myself as I walked in. "No birds in here. They must be all in their nesting boxes." I laid the mice down on the big log and looked again for the birds. Then the 5 or so short stumps that were poking up from the log moved. I just about weed myself.

  3. Nice article.