One for the Birds

David Cook — 25 February 2021
Australia’s bird fauna is one of the richest in the world, and it is believed to be the origin for many of the bird species found elsewhere.

Australian birds often get a bum rap from overseas enthusiasts, even highly esteemed biologists, who often see them as loud, raucous and aggressive, yet we ought to be extraordinarily proud of our birds, what they have produced and how they both orchestrate and adapt to the ecosystems they inhabit.

Australia has 830 species of birds (not including 27 species of introduced birds, or 13 which have become extinct) — more if you take into account immediately adjacent islands. That’s nearly ten per cent of the approximately 10,000 known species of birds on this planet. Nearly half of those are endemic, being found nowhere else on Earth, and nearly all bird species can trace their lineages back to birds emanating from this continent.

Just recently I was listening to a radio program where they were asking people who had returned to living here after having been absent for a number of years what was the first thing they noted about their renewed experience, and almost all of them cited the very audible presence of birds.

Australian birds aren’t quiet little inhabitants of hedgerows and grasses; they are often large, for birds, and loud. They flock in numbers competing for access to nectar of our native trees and shrubs; hanging precariously from sagging branches to gather every last drop, jetting across the spaces between their haunts. Sitting here in my suburban home I can hear them squawking loudly as they conduct their noisy lives, imprinting subliminally on my life the awareness that this is Australia.

Our birds range from the huge ratites — the flightless emu and the cassowary, which are probably still very close to all birds’ dinosaurian ancestors in their lifestyle and appearance — to the smallest of insectivores. Three of the most common types of birds — parrots, songbirds and pigeons — evolved within Australia and spread throughout the world. Parrots, especially, are very diverse, with 55 species. There are almost as many species of parrots in the state of NSW alone as there are in all of Africa and Asia combined. Only South America can rival Australia in its diversity of parrot species.

Nineteenth century scientific wisdom ran that birds evolved outside Australia and had spread to this ancient and empty continent, but more recent fossil discoveries of the small fragile bones of birds have indicated they were a thriving group here long before they appeared in the fossil record anywhere else. As genetic analysis became possible towards the end of last century it also became certain that there was a much greater genetic diversity within the songbirds in Australia than elsewhere. A major study, published in the journal Nature Communications in 2016, indicated that songbirds had become major features of the environment in Australia 33 million years ago but did not start to take their song to the rest of the world for another 10 million years.

A recent study expressed the belief that all perching birds — known scientifically as passerines — originated in Australia, and with 6000 species of these that makes close to 60 per cent of all birds. Passerines can be identified as those with three forward facing toes and one back, which enables a sound grip on a perch. This finding resulted from genomic testing of a wide range of perching birds. Their radiation from Australia was governed not so much by migration from our shores but by the movement of the land masses where they existed.

Lyrebirds, found only in Australia, are the world’s best sound mimics, able to reproduce everything from the sound of a chainsaw or tractor to that of any other bird species within their environment. Their courtship ‘dance’ is also striking, and is matched only by the courting behaviour of the bowerbird which secures numerous bright blue souvenirs to attract a mate, a behavior which must have been relatively difficult in pre-European Australia when the colour blue would have been very scarce in nature.

Australia, however, doesn’t simply retain its bird species, and many migratory birds spend significant portions of their life each year in our waters or on our land mass, mainly in our more northern latitudes. The continent also has the world’s highest number of seabirds, with 80 species.

The nature of Australia’s eucalypt woodland also both shaped and was shaped by bird evolution. Eucalypts and other native plant species can flower at any time through the year and often do so as long as rainfall sustains it. This makes trees a major source of nourishment for nectar-eating honeyeater birds, such as wattlebirds, noisy miners and some parrots, and ‘possession’ of a tree becomes a major survival factor, causing these birds to be aggressive and noisy as defence mechanisms for their territory.

To be competitive within the broader world has then resulted in many other bird types becoming similarly noisy. Birds such as kookaburras, magpies and other non-honyeater parrots can trace their volume to this.

These honeyeating birds have then become major factors in the pollination of many Australian plants, helping to further shape the environment, in turn attracting insects which provide a food source for insectivorous birds.

Of course, there are many other ways in which birds have shaped our environment, with birds such as cassowaries, pigeons and fruit doves acting to spread fruit seeds, and birds such as lyrebirds raking over forest floor litter which incidentally creates fire breaks.

It is interesting to note the changing face of urban Australia and the birds which have accommodated our alterations to their environment. Some birds — such as the sulphur crested cockatoo, the white ibis (aka the ‘tip turkey’ or ‘bin chicken’) or the brush turkey — have in recent years prospered in the altered world imposed upon them, while others have retreated to relatively untouched land.

Ensure you carry a copy of What Bird is That, or something similar, and you can add a whole new dimension to your travels with your camper trailer. Learning to identify, and/or photograph the birds around your home or your campsite can make for a great way to enjoy your environment. A long telephoto lens (preferably with a touch of fill-in flash) is all you need. Stay clear of birds such as cassowaries, which can be aggressive, but almost anywhere you go will present you with plenty of targets. 


Regular Column Beneath the Surface Australian birds Fauna