BATTLING BUTCHERBIRDS

As I may have said on a few previous occasions, there is one clear advantage of having your own “backyard” patch, a place you either visit regularly or, and some could argue better still, the place you actually live in.  Allen Road comes into the latter category.  Each day’s birding inevitably starts out as a list of birds Fay and I can hear while still lying in bed enjoying the morning’s first cup of tea.  I often get to see the first bird while making the tea – yes, I’m old-fashioned enough!

In birding your own local patch you soon become familiar with the regular birds of that patch.  You get to know them almost as individuals; indeed, I know some my local birds better than I know some of my neighbours along Allen Road.

Take the two species of butcherbirds, part of the Artamidae family available in this neck of the woods; we have both the Grey Cracticus torquatus and the Pied Butcherbird C. nigrogularis present as residents.  However, the former is a daily visitor to our verandahs in search of titbits of cheese or simply using the verandah roof as shelter from more inclement weather while the Pied is, with one notable exception, a bird that we only hear from our property although it is often encountered on our walks along Allen Road.

It has become a regular routine.  Our third cup of tea [well, perhaps a few more cups during the shorter, colder mornings of winter] we have on an old miner’s couch on the east verandah.  Almost invariably, within minutes of settling down, one or the other of the Grey Butcherbirds, usually the male –you can differentiate between the sexes when both are sitting a metre of less from you- arrives to perch on the top rail.  It never makes a sound; it simply sits there looking at us.  One or the other of us gets up to cut up the cheese, usually tasty cheddar [for those interested in the piddling minutia].  We toss bits of cheese into the air and enjoy the spectacle of the butcherbirds’ aerial acrobatics as they snatch the morsels from mid air.

In contrast, the Pied Butcherbird, a much larger species, with the one aforementioned exception, has only ever been recorded as “heard only” on our property bird records.  We simply don’t expect to see it until our winter weekend or summer evening walks along the road.

That is until the other day.  The weather was abysmal.  It was cold, ground temperatures plumbing perilously close to zero.  It had rained heavily overnight, bringing back memories of last January when Fay and I became isolated on our own property for three days. The morning light was impossible.  All was gloom and climatic doom.

As we sat with that welcome cup of tea the male Grey Butcherbird suddenly alighted on the top rail of the east verandah; we could see its mate perched in the nearby angophora.  The normal routine ensued.  I tossed the male a piece of cheese and then leaned over the rail to toss a piece towards the female in the tree.  She never stood a chance.  In a flash the cheese was snatched in mid air by a Pied Butcherbird, a much larger close cousin, which clearly had been waiting on the roof.  Fay and I were stunned.

Apart from the exceptional agility displayed by the bird, how had the Pied learnt that this was the local Café Avian?  It had never previously sought additional food supplements from us.  I tossed a second piece to the male Grey and again tossed a piece towards the female in the tree.  The Pied intercepted it.

This continued for several throws until both Grey and Pied departed; the former to return later that afternoon.

We were granted a second showing of the Pied Butcherbird’s lissom acrobatic prowess the following day when again it swooped down from the rooftop to intercept pieces of cheese intended for the Grey Butcherbirds.  My fingers worked overtime tapping in this newly discovered data into the Bird Journal program.

This week we experienced a repeat performance but with rather a sharp twist to the tale.  The Pied Butcherbird arrived earlier than the pair of Grey Butcherbirds and duly took the first morsel of proffered cheese.  It perched on the corner of the east and north verandahs and I had just turned away to resume drinking my tea when a flash of feathers skimmed by close to my left ear; there was a distinct clack of wing beats.  I stopped, amazed, puzzled.  Had I just been attacked, warned off by some unseen bird?

I spotted a Grey Butcherbird in the sapling at the edge of the track leading to the house.  Had it been the culprit, the unseen attacker?  The question was answered a moment later when the Grey took off and swooped in on the verandah corner – straight at the Pied, only averting certain collision at the last moment.  Again, the clack of wings indicted that this was no chance encounter but a deliberate assault by the Grey Butcherbird on its close cousin, the Pied Butcherbird.

Again, moments later, the Grey attacked the Pied in a deliberate offensive.  On the next assault the Pied Butcherbird clearly decided that discretion was the better part of valour and beat a hasty retreat back towards the west of the property.

There has been no repeat performance by the pied butcherbird since that ignominious defeat.

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