New Zealand Wattle Birds and Australian Magpies

New Zealand Wattle Birds and Australian Magpies

New Zealand Wattle Birds and Australian Magpies

There are relatively few species of birds confined to New Zealand, and many of these have found it difficult to cope with the loss of habitat due to massive clearing for forestry and agriculture and the efficient introduced predators that accompanied European settlement. The New Zealand wattlebirds exemplify this conflict; all have declined in abundance over the past 100 years and one, the hula, has almost certainly become extinct since it was last seen alive in 1907. The three species that make up this family were all forest-dwellers that spent a proportion of their time foraging at ground level: this and their readily accessible nests are thought to have made them very susceptible to predation by cats and rats.

However, it would seem that collecting by both Maoris and the early European settlers significantly hastened the demise of the hula, which, unfortunately, was sought for ornamentation by both cultures. The family gains its name from the con-spacious hanging face wattles that adorn each species. This arc is orange-colored except for the Northern Island race of the kokako which has blue wattles. The hula is one of the very few birds in which there Isa a pronounced difference in bill shape between the sexes. The kokako and saddleback both eat aide variety of fruits, berries and insects gathered at all levels of the forest. Their legs are well developed and their wings, while not large, are quite adequate for short flights. Breeding is usually in the spring and early summer.

The female builds the nest and she alone incubates the eggs. The male feeds the female on the nest and escorts her when she leaves it to forage. Both parents feed the nestlings. Young stay with their parents for several months after leaving thinnest but there is no evidence of longer-term associations such as might lead to cooperative breeding groups. Both living wattlebirds have been the sub-jest of much concern to ornithologists in New Zealand, and the Wildlife Service has been active to prevent either following the huia into possible extinction. The establishment of the saddleback on predator-free islands forms one of the few major success stories in the management of endangered species. It is hoped that efforts with the kokako along similar lines will be as successful. How did the first mud-nest builder recognize that wet mud was a good material to use?

Although wet sloppy mud seems to be an almost unpromising material no less than 16 different families of birds ranging from flamingos to swallows have recognized that mud dries to a firm shape and use irregularly to build their nests. In Australia and New Guinea  two endemic families have been linked in the past solely based on building their nests with mud. But recently, the two magpie-larks have been placed in a family of their own (Grallinidae), leaving the White-winged chough and the apostle bird as the family of Australian mud-nesters (Corcoracidae). They are neither magpies nor larks, but the magpie-larks’ pied plumage suggests the former. Their feed the latter.

Alternative names include pee-wee, from their call, and mudlark, from their nests. Both the magpie-lark and the Torrent lark are black and white with slight differences between the sexes. The former is starling-like in build and terrestrial gait but has a slow flapping flight. The Torrent lark is smaller, very active, and an inhabitant of fast-flowing streams in upland New Guinea. It per-distantly wags its tail from side to side. Magpie- larks often feed around the edge of ponds, frequently eating snails. Magpie-larks have a call-and-response” pee-wee” call, usually initiated by them ale.

It maintains contact between males and females and proclaims the territory. They are aggressive, attacking other black and white birds, even their reflections. Breeding starts in late winter and the mud nests are strengthened with wool and grass. Both parents incubate and feed the young, which are dependent for several weeks after fledging. Flocks of young birds gather in late summer.

Both Australian mud-nesters are confined to eastern Australia and since neither has reached Tasmania or shows any signs of different forms throughout its range, this sag-gests that they are relatively recent arrivals. The plumage of these birds is soft and fluffy (as in many babblers) compared with the smooth, glossy feathering of most passerines (including the magpie-larks). Both spend most of their time foraging on the ground and have well-developed legs as a consequence.

The White-winged chough has an along slightly curved bill (remarkably similar to that of the unrelated chough of Europe. hence the name) with which it probes into tussocks, digs in soft earth  and turns over twigs and pieces of bark to search for insects, its main source of food. Apostle birds have shorter chunkier “finch-like” bills and although they, too, eat insects they con-some a wide variety of seeds as well.

The Australian mud-nesters are very rarely found in simple pairs but in groups of up to T 5-2o members, the result of young from earlier years retained within the family group instead of dispersing. Usually, only one female lies in a nest though occasionally two may do so, resulting in a very large clutch. All members of these groups help to build the nest, to incubate and brood the nestling sand to feed the young in and out of the nest.

Sexual maturity is not reached until three or four years from hatching and during this time the eye color of the bird changes. This feature provides a very useful guide to bird’s ages. Sometimes groups aggregate into large flocks at a localized source of abundant food such as a stubble field recently harvested, or a recently sown cereal crop. This has sometimes caused conflict with farmers in the past but is sufficiently rare that in these days of more enlightened thinking about con-serration matters, the species are unlikely to be slaughtered on this account. Most farmers and their families enjoy the presence of these birds which with encouragement may become adapted to man and with their often amusing social interactions add to the variety of country life.

Wood swallows are a distinct group of small birds with strong well-developed wings that enable them to stay aloft for hours scooping up insects in their broad bills. Besides hawk-in high in the sky, wood swallows have been seen feeding among the blossoms of trees and since they have brush-like tips toothier tongues they may gather nectar as well as insects. They have short legs and hop clumsily on the ground.

The triangular wing-silhouette closely resembles that of the Common starling and has led to the name in German of Schwalbenstare (” swallow-starling”), which is very apt. Both members of the pair build the nest, incubate the eggs and feed the young for at least a month. In the Dusky, Little, Black-faced  and White-breasted wood swallows groups have been known to attend the nest. Species in temperate regions breed more inspiring than those in the tropics during the wet season.

Species of the arid inland, such as the Black-faced wood swallow, may breed at any time, responding very rapidly to heavy falls of rain; nests have been built and eggs lay within 12 days of such a downpour. Wood swallows generally nest in loose colonies with their flimsy, stick; cup-nests rarely within 3m (roil) of another nest. Family parties remain together long after the breeding season and are very sociable, frequently preening each other and huddling together for roosting even when the night temperature remains above 30°C (86°F); these associations sometimes lead to cooperative breeding.

In cold weather, wood swallows may even cluster during the day. And as many as 200 have been seen together like a swarm of bees on a tree trunk. A male may courtship-feed his female; copulation is preceded by a characteristic display in which both birds flutter their part-open wings and rotate their half-spread tails. Some wood swallows remain as residents all year around while others are regular migrants, returning to the same place to breed each year.

The truly nomadic species, the White-browed and the masked wood swallows, form mixed flocks which annually travel thousands of kilometers between breeding attempts. They rarely breed in the same place for two years running even if the reappears to be plenty of food. Australia is widely supposed to be a “land of song-less birds,” but the bell magpies give the lie to this. They comprise three genera of basic black and white robust birds that are chiefly insectivorous.

They differ in the way they catch the hulk of their insect prey: butcherbirds live a shrike-like existence flies in from perches well above the ground and even impale their prey in “larders” as shrikes do. Magpies are heavier birds with longer legs: they spend much more time on the ground foraging, probing into the ground and under branches, cow-pats with their bills.

Kurrajongs are larger still and although they too may spend a lot of time on the ground they are adept at foraging in the forest, searching the canopy forphasrnids  or probing into the bark of living trees. One butcherbird is endemic to New Guinea: the Louisiade butcherbird; three other species are shared between New Guinea and Australia and the Gray only occurs in Australia. They all have long massive bills, blue-gray with a black, hooked tip that enables them to capture and dismember prey as large as small birds. Usually found in resident pairs or family parties, they all have beautiful piping orca rolling calls that are often performed byte a pair or group, with calls and responses creating a magnificent performance. The Australian magpie is the best-known of the family. Its social life is complex but territorial.

Food is varied and ranges from small seeds and ants, through scarabs, ground weevils  and grasshoppers to worms, frogs, lizards  and mice. This illustrates the versatility of the species and explains the value of a varied territory  and the need for the experience of a long-lived resident to exploit it fully. Kurrajongs are named after their call.

Which is loud and ringing? Their bills are large, pointed  and very strong; they are skillful predators of other birds’ nests and tend to forage over much larger areas than the other two genera. The Pied currawong nests in the forests of the Great Dividing Range and makes annual nomadic movements towards the plains and cities. In large flocks. They may be significant predators of stick insects which at times defoliate large areas of eucalypt forest.

See more: Finches

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