Are currawongs always in the wrong?

Ian Fraser 1 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?
Finding joy in the everyday Finding joy in the everyday 8:02 am 05 Apr 21

Our family is friendly and calls out to each during the day. Never had trouble with them at all.

David Holt David Holt 7:06 am 05 Apr 21

The F111 Avian fighter bomber. I love the way they risk everything to dive into foliage at high speed dislodging wing breaking, feather shredding branches and catch mostly exotic birds.

Cate Whittle Cate Whittle 6:53 am 05 Apr 21

They were the first residents to adopt us when we moved to our bush block, and they are still amongst the first to arrive each morning for 'breakfast'. I have to ask, I first heard of them (years before we moved here) as called 'burrawangs'. Anyone else? OR am I barking up the wrong tree?

    Richard Watts Richard Watts 4:28 pm 05 Apr 21

    I've often heard Burrawang used as the common name for the cycad Macrozamia communis, which is very common along the coast here. Never heard it applied to currawongs though.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macrozamia_communis

    Cate Whittle Cate Whittle 7:30 pm 05 Apr 21

    Richard Watts thanks... puzzling where the crossed connections came from, though.

Coralee Rauber Coralee Rauber 6:04 am 05 Apr 21

They have become a pest.

14 managed to gang up on my dogs and take all food.

Theyr pooing ivy seeds and other pest plants and weeds every where.

Dropping random food in yards and roof. Sit on clothes lines and cars pooing. Starving and bashing other native birds and stealing clothes particularly socks and underwear of the clothes line and ditching them every where.

I truly wish among many other residents that they be relocated from cook

Dale Harding Dale Harding 5:04 am 05 Apr 21

There’s a couple calling outside right now at 5.00am Thanks for the read.

Jane Skillicorn Jane Skillicorn 3:23 am 05 Apr 21

I loathe them..... they kill baby birds, but I have learned to love pee wees for chasing them away from our yard!!!

Karen Hedley Karen Hedley 11:13 pm 04 Apr 21

Margaret Hedley , hatefuls

May Claydon May Claydon 11:02 pm 04 Apr 21

Love them

Belinda Maiden Belinda Maiden 10:55 pm 04 Apr 21

Love them!

Julie Maynard Julie Maynard 9:46 pm 04 Apr 21

Love listening to them as the sunsets.

    Megan Hogan Megan Hogan 10:44 pm 04 Apr 21

    Julie Maynard me too, such a beautiful call 😊

Margaret McDonald Margaret McDonald 9:29 pm 04 Apr 21

Hate that they just drop dead chicks in my garden. They also harvest my berries both Raspberries and Blueberries.

    Megan Hogan Megan Hogan 10:44 pm 04 Apr 21

    Margaret McDonald they eat my blackberries.

    Margaret McDonald Margaret McDonald 7:00 am 05 Apr 21

    Megan Hogan do the wait until they are ripe and then eat the best? 🤣🤣🤣

    Megan Hogan Megan Hogan 8:06 am 05 Apr 21

    Margaret McDonald of course, they’re selective 😆

Helen Moore Helen Moore 9:19 pm 04 Apr 21

When I was young they were mountain birds who came down into Canberra in Autumn with that mournful cry when nights got cold..... but now we give them too much food so they are here all year round .... stuffed up their ecosystem as well

    Prue Crouch Prue Crouch 7:18 am 05 Apr 21

    Helen Moore that is very obvious here in the Victorian Grampians, so sad to see all the birds and animals being fed bread even though there are signs everywhere saying don’t feed the birds or kangaroos. Bush Emus yesterday continually after food. Sad.

Jack Hearps Jack Hearps 9:14 pm 04 Apr 21

They have been cleaning up mice out on the north west side. Very fat ... and deadly.

Chris Ellis Chris Ellis 8:36 pm 04 Apr 21

I loved them as a child growing up in the mountains. We called then rain birds as one of their cries portended rain. I too, hated them for their baby bird eating habit. Lately I’ve come to like their learning, from Magpies, to come for a feed of meat. They make eye contact and demonstrate the same keen intelligence of Magpies in manipulating humans to feed them. Ditto Butcher Birds.

Sarah Eliza Sarah Eliza 8:35 pm 04 Apr 21

I actually love them, have a family of them in my suburb that come and see me every day. They love eating my cats dry food!!

Rauny Worm Rauny Worm 8:33 pm 04 Apr 21

I love our resident family..and I think they kinda like me..with reservations, of course.

Jilly Beans Jilly Beans 8:26 pm 04 Apr 21

Loathe them, they leave dead animals on my clothesline and eat my grapes. All of the small birds have gone since they moved into the neighbourhood.

    Peter Higgins Peter Higgins 12:04 pm 05 Apr 21

    Jilly Beans bird populations change in cycles. They have for millennia. When the smaller birds disappear, then the Currawongs disappear, then the small birds return. It's the natural cycle of bird life everywhere on the planet.

Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 8:22 pm 04 Apr 21

I love hearing them in our local park. I did once save two ducklings from a mob of currawongs. They'd already killed one. I managed to usher the mother duck and her babies into the lake before they could get the others.

So not a bird that gives me the warm fuzzies. But you know, nature.

Terry Cooper Terry Cooper 8:12 pm 04 Apr 21

At least they don’t swoop. Pretty much all birds eat other babies.

    Margaret McDonald Margaret McDonald 9:27 pm 04 Apr 21

    Terry Cooper was swooped by one near Target loading dock in Civic. Figured they learnt it from the Maggies.

    Terry Cooper Terry Cooper 4:01 am 05 Apr 21

    Its pretty rare though

    Michael Norris Michael Norris 4:40 am 05 Apr 21

    They swoop less often than maggies, but when they do they're more brutal.

Richard Windsor Richard Windsor 1:34 pm 04 Apr 21

I fear that Currawongs in Canberra are in a serious state of decline. A few years ago our yard was regularly visited by as many as 50 Currawongs, then there was an outbreak of Scaly Leg Disease contracted from domestic fowls. This disease severely affects Currawongs, crippling them and leaving them unable to feed. Since then we’ve had only a few birds each year and most are infected. I suspect that most that we see are recruits from out of town but the Scaly Leg is apparently highly contagious and we see few birds in anything but the early stages of the disease. 🙁

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