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St. Arnaud’s “almost” Bird-of-Paradise

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Anne Hughes, St Arnaud Field Naturalists, The Buloke Times

The ground-walking, weak-flying birds you see on your trip down the Sunraysia Highway to Ballarat are one of Australia’s most amazing birds – the White-winged Chough (pron. chuff). 

With their sooty-black livery, startling ruby-red eyes and, when they take to the air, black-edged white wings they are obviously not crows (we don’t have ’em down here) or ravens either.

Living in families of up to 15 birds, Mum and Dad, their offspring and this season’s babies, or more often just one baby, these birds of the dry woodlands have learnt how to live in a landscape of scarce resources.

Long-lived and slow to breed, the young birds take some years to learn how to build their pudding-bowl mud nest, with just beaks and feet.

Younger family members help at the nest and all search for food for the nestlings. This is essential as they have to survive in a dry and food-poor part of the country.

Just the size and shape of a traditional pudding-bowl, this nest may be in use for several years.

Long-term parental care is given; no kids kicked out of home – sound familiar?

Adult birds will feed younger birds, sometimes for years, when they beg persuasively enough, also familiar to human parents.

An adult encouraging a fledgling to accept food- looks a bit threatening; maybe it’s carrots again!

All members of the family co-operate to repel invaders (goannas, raptors, cats and foxes).

These birds are highly social – always to be seen sitting side by side on horizontal branches, and they eat, sleep, bathe, preen and play together.

Australia is the home of social, playful birds; behaviour that is largely unknown elsewhere amongst the world’s bird species.

Horizontal branches are loved by choughs as they can all sit together.

A lack of them can mean death for the fledglings as they cannot fly high enough to get off the ground in the first weeks of their lives.

Unfortunately, this incredible bird is in decline, habitat loss; in other words, no home any more. Removal of native vegetation, especially along creeks, streams and drainage lines and leaving only the poorer, drier parts of the landscape have been and continues to be a major culprit.

Choughs are ground feeders, finding almost all their food from the litter layer – the leaves and twigs on the ground that support insect life.

The raking-up of leaf litter, where it is unnecessary, removes the food source for these birds and many other ground feeding species.

Inappropriate burns do the same thing – disastrously.

These birds not only remove pest species of insects, but also open up the soil, improving water penetration and in turning the leaf litter, help it to break down by natural means.

The total loss of our small digging mammals (bandicoots, bettongs and such) has resulted in the drying out of the bush and all we have left to do this vital work are our echidnas and Whitewinged Choughs.

With slow replacement of family members (only one or two babies per family per year) this bird is slow to recover from a disaster- floods (2010 and 2016), destructive storm (2011) with loss of nests, nestlings and fledglings. With lots of hits on our roads and highways, an entire breeding season can be lost. Please take more care of our wildlife or we will see this bird slide into extinction, too.

Australia’s birds have been here for up to 400 million years – surely we can value that and take better care of them.

The absolute showstopper is recent DNA studies which show that our White-winged Chough is the southernmost member of the tropical Birds-of-Paradise family.

Our ruby-eyed White-winged Chough!

Who would have thunk it!

Are we chuffed, or what?

The Buloke Times 29 March 2024

This article appeared in The Buloke Times, 29 March 2024.

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