Are currawongs always in the wrong?

Ian Fraser 16 April 2021 58
Pied currawong

Pied currawongs are very familiar Canberra birds. Photo: Ian Fraser.

My last column was still summer-oriented in that it featured the blue-tongued lizards that bask in our sunny yards. Your comments on it confirmed that, as I’d expect, blueys are firm Canberra favourites. Today I’ve switched to an autumn theme, and to an animal that I know doesn’t have as many fans.

I arrived in Canberra at the start of 1980 and for the first couple of months or so of the year there were no currawongs to be seen in Canberra at all.

Then in autumn, as the first cold breezes trickled down from the mountains and nights took on a chill, suddenly Canberra’s parks and ovals were full of the wild jamborees of hundreds of pied currawongs arriving from the snow gums of the Brindabellas. They yodelled and shrilled and the quietness of days was shattered.

The thing is that back then, no currawongs bred in Canberra – they all flew up to the mountains in spring, bred up there out of sight and mind, and returned with their offspring only when the first hints of frosts began to stir in the ranges. Hence the autumn celebrations, which still happen.

It was during the following decade that some currawongs seemingly began to realise that they didn’t need to make the journey every year.

Pied currawong eating a berry

A pied currawong eating firethorn berries, then spreading the seeds. Photo: Ian Fraser.

As the suburbs expanded, so did the food sources the currawongs needed. Most importantly, currawongs are mostly fruit eaters and the berry-bearing shrubs in gardens suited them well (especially firethorns and cotoneasters). These shrubs were spread – to a large degree by the currawongs themselves, who ate the fruit and voided the seeds – to parks and hill reserves.

Most of the animals they do eat seem to be the big stick insects which live in the forest canopy. It is believed that pied currawongs provide an important protection to the forests by keeping these stick insects in check.

But the berries and stick insects aren’t quite the only items on the menu all-year round. Developing Canberra gardens provided nesting opportunities for smaller birds, and for the few weeks of the year that currawongs are feeding their own chicks, the chicks of smaller birds are an important protein source for them.

Pied currawong feeding chicks

Pied currawong feeding chicks on the outskirts of Canberra. Photo: Ian Fraser.

And it is from here I think that most of the antagonism towards currawongs springs. I quite understand how distressing it can be when a fondly watched nest of young birds is suddenly emptied by a currawong intent on keeping up the demands of its own babies. I feel it too.

But I think it’s worth thinking this one through a little further, so just two points before moving on to other, lighter currawong snippets.

First, we’ve created the situation whereby currawongs (and some other common garden birds) can remain and thrive in an area where they were not previously able to. That’s not good or bad, it just is. (For many other species the reverse is true – they can no longer live here.)

Second, and perhaps more relevantly, when currawongs breed in the mountains, as many of them still do so, they’re feeding their chicks on other young birds, but two things are different. We don’t see it, so we don’t think about it. And those nestlings are native birds, while a large proportion of the nestlings taken by currawongs in Canberra are exotics – sparrows, starlings, mynas, blackbirds – which could be seen as a benefit.

The name currawong is of Indigenous origin, and surely reflects the wild calls of the pied currawong, but dictionaries are divided as to which language. Both Jagawa (south-east Queensland) and Dharuk (the Sydney area) are proposed.

However, until the 20th century, they were universally and awkwardly known in English as ‘crow-shrikes’ or ‘bell-magpies’. The first recorded alternative is ‘churwung’ from Brisbane in 1905 and the modern version suddenly appeared in an authoritative list of Australian birds in 1926. Very curious, but presumably it had been present in spoken English before that.

And one more comment on names. Pied currawongs were widely eaten by people and were one of the several birds known as ‘muttonbirds’. An early version of this was Hircine Magpie, from Latin for a goat, referring to the claimed ‘goatish’ smell of the hind-quarters, which were regarded as not worth eating.

You don’t have to like currawongs, but I hope I’ve given you food for thought.

Ian Fraser is a Canberra naturalist, conservationist and author. He has written on all aspects of natural history, advised the ACT government on biodiversity and published multiple guides to the region’s flora and fauna.

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58 Responses to Are currawongs always in the wrong?
Noelle Waugh Noelle Waugh 7:31 am 08 Apr 21

I love their choruses, it’s so quintessentially autumn in Canberra.

Earl Flat Earl Flat 6:38 am 08 Apr 21

They are like the marauding bikers of the bird world - sassy and naughty with a swaggering gate and loads of attitude. I just love them.💖

    Shaun Williamson Shaun Williamson 2:56 pm 08 Apr 21

    Earl Flat yep I think they're awesome birds too mate

Kate Carey Kate Carey 6:18 am 08 Apr 21

Too aloof for me. Adore chatting with the magpies though.

Micks Way Removals & Storage Micks Way Removals & Storage 3:31 pm 07 Apr 21

they are a pest and all should be shot simple

Terri Miller Terri Miller 11:09 am 07 Apr 21

I've seen them be brutal ... but they are still magnificent, beautiful and smart. 💛

Tara Mann Tara Mann 6:56 am 07 Apr 21

I love currawongs ♥️

Andrea Trappes Andrea Trappes 9:57 pm 06 Apr 21

I love the cheeky blighters.

Sue Wood Sue Wood 9:20 pm 06 Apr 21

Soooo agree with you !

Beegee Dogwalker Beegee Dogwalker 5:07 pm 06 Apr 21

Currawongs are harmless locals - give me a currawong over a bloody Indian myna any day.

Cathy Ryan Cathy Ryan 12:28 pm 06 Apr 21

Not a fan at all, they are so aggressive....last year they nested near my place and attacked my magpie parents and killed and ate their fledglings. Magpies have lived here for many years, don't swoop and it took them months to come back.

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 9:27 am 06 Apr 21

Can't stand the cretins, but i acknowledge that they have a cruel place in nature.

Jackie White Jackie White 9:15 am 06 Apr 21

I don't mind them until every Spring, when they crap all over my front porch.

    Christine Bowman Christine Bowman 9:54 am 06 Apr 21

    Jackie White are you out there singing of the joys of spring? Maybe they are giving their considered opinion of your talent?

Claire Lewis Claire Lewis 9:04 am 06 Apr 21

They bully my dog, so not a fan

Jocelyn Rosen Jocelyn Rosen 9:55 pm 05 Apr 21

Hate them

Elaine Staples Elaine Staples 9:30 pm 05 Apr 21

Love them. In our recent rural home, one adopted us, and always turned up when I went outside. In our two recent urban homes, again, one adopted us, and now a pair have made themselves known. But Magpies most certainly dominate them and move them on when it suits.

Janet Thatcher Janet Thatcher 7:38 pm 05 Apr 21

Love them. Have a family that nests on my block every year. They don’t bother me at all. They do grab the odd piece of dog food but not enough to worry about plus I can always feed the dog inside. They do less damage to the fruit trees than other birds too. I’ve also got plenty of small birds around. Maybe it’s because they have plenty of cover at my place. Not sure. Everything has a purpose in nature so live and let live.

Dianne Bourke Dianne Bourke 7:28 pm 05 Apr 21

Loathe them as they have driven small birds out of our garden!

Phemie Phemie 4:33 pm 05 Apr 21

Currawongs are basically evil. They killed one of my 6 week old chickens that I had grown up from day olds, on the first day that I allowed the poor chicks out into the chick run. They pecked at it through the wire. They could not get to it to eat it, they killed it because they could. However, they are excellent flyers and they are somehow very comical and they are the best birds ever for harassing murdering cats, far better than the seasonal magpies. If you have currawongs in your garden and don’t like them, I suggest encouraging magpies. There is a strict hierarchy in the avian world and currawongs are below magpies. The magpies will accept no nonsense from currawongs and chase them away. Or encourage red wattle birds by growing beautiful bottle brushes, they chase everything away. I love red wattle birds they are so feisty and their call is so harsh and discordant.

Sharon Cornthwaite Sharon Cornthwaite 1:55 pm 05 Apr 21

i like their calls, they do spread that bloody privet bush far and wide, but they still herald in the change of seasons here in the bega valley

Elizabeth Owen Elizabeth Owen 1:32 pm 05 Apr 21

They manage to eat my figs through bird netting. Also killed the fledgling birds in a wiily wagtails' nest four years ago, despite the frantic efforts of the patent birds to defend their young.

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