Friday, May 31, 2013

E is for EMU

Well, what did you expect but E for EMU??  It just had to be and perhaps even we Aussies may learn something we didn't know about this one.

The emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the largest bird native to Australia and the only extant member of the genus Dromaius.  It is the second-largest extant bird in the world by height. after its ratite relative, the ostrich.  The largest emu can reach up to 150-190 cm (59-75 in) in height, 1-1.3 m (3.3-4.3 ft) at the shoulder.  In length measured from bill to the tail, emus range from 139-164 cm (55-65 in), with males averaging 148.5 cm (58.5 in) and females averaging 156.8 cm (61.7 in).  They weigh between 18-60 kg (40-130 lb), with an average of 31.5 kg (69 lb) and 36.9 kg (81 lb) in males and females, respectively.  Females are usually larger than males by a small amount, and are substantially wider across the rump.  There are three subspecies of emus in Australia.  (I didn't realise that).  The emu is common over most of mainland Australia, although it avoids heavily populated areas, dense fores, and arid areas.  We have a lot of emus in Western Australia and they can be a danger on the highways, both to themselves and the motorist.  I have often seen flocks of them when holidaying in our south-west.

The soft-feathered brown, flightless birds reach up to 2 metres (6.6 ft) in height.  They have long thin necks and legs and can travel great distances at a fast, economical trot and, if necessary, can sprint at 50 km/hr (31 mph).  Their long legs allow them to take strides of up to 275 cms (9.02 ft).  They are opportunistically nomadic and may travel long distances to find food, they feed on a variety of plants and insects, but have been known to go for weeks without food.  Emus ingest stones, glass shards and bits of metal to grind food in the digestive system.  They drink infrequently, but take in copious fluids when the opportunity arises.  Emus will sit in water and are also

able to swim.They are curious birds who are known to follow and watch other animals and humans.  (I remember being followed quite closely by an emu some years ago in a wildlife reserve while holidaying at Manjimup...quite a bit scary 'cos they make quite a weird noise).  Emus do not sleep continuously at night but in several short stints sitting down.

Emus use their strongly clawed feet as a defence mechanism.  Their legs are among the strongest of any animal, allowing them to rip metal wire fences.  They are endowed with good eyesight and hearing, which allowed them to detect predators in their vicinity.  The plumage varies regionally, matching the surrounding environment and improving its camouflage.  The feather structure prevents heat from flowing into the skin, permitting emus to be active during the midday heat.  They can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and thermoregulate effectively.

Emus breed in May and June and are not monogamous; fighting among females for a mate is common and females can mate several times and lay several batches of eggs in one season.  The animals put on weight before the breeding season, and the male does the incubation, losing significant weight during this time as he does not eat.

The eggs hatch after around eight weeks. and the young are nurtured by their fathers.  They reach full size at around six months, but can remain with their family until the next breeding season half a year later.

Emus can live to between 10 and 20 years in the wild and are predated by dingos, eagles and hawks.  They can jump and kick to avoid dingos, but against eagles and hawks, they can only run and swerve.

There are reports the emu was first sighted by European explorers in 1696 when they made a brief visit to the coast of Western Australia.  It was thought to have been spotted on the east coast of Australia before 1788 when the first European settlement occurred.  It was first described under the name of the "New Holland Cassowary" in Arthur Phillip's "Voyage to Botany Bay", published in 1789.  The species was named by ornithologist John Latham on a specimen from the Sydney, Australia area, which was referred to as New Holland at the time.  He collaborated on Phillip's book and provided the first descriptions of and names for many Australian bird species; its name in Latin means "fast-footed New Hollander".  The etymology of the common name "emu" is uncertain, but is thought to have come from an Arabic word for large bird that was later used by Portugese explorers to describe the related cassowary in Australia and New Guinea.  Another theory is that it comes from the word "ema", which is used in Portuguese to denote a large bird akin to an ostrich or crane.  In Victoria, some terms for the emu were 'barrimal' in the Dja Dja Wurrung language, 'myoure' in Gunai, and 'coum' in Jardwadjali.  It was known as 'murawung' or 'birabayin' to the local Eora and Darug inhabitants of the Sydney basin.

The Tasmanian Emu and King Island Emu subspecies that previously inhabited Tasmanian and King Island became extinct after the European settlement of Australia in 1788, and the distribution of the mainland subspecies has been influenced by human activities.  Once common on the east coast, emus are now uncommon there; by contrast the development of agriculture and the provision of water for stock in the interior of the continent have increased the range of the emu in arid regions, and it is of "Least Concern" for conservation.  They were a food and fuel source for indigenous Australians and early European settlers.  Emus are farmed for their meat, oil, and leather. Emu is lean meat and while it is often claimed by marketers that the oil has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects, this has not been scientifically verified in humans.  The emu is an important cultural icon of Australia.  It appears on our coat of arms, various coins, features prominently in Indigenous Australian mythology, and hundreds of places are named after this bird.  (We have Emu Point in Albany on our south coast and of course there is always Emu Bitter and Emu Export, beer brewed right here in the sunny West).

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


The Dollarbird is the sole Australian representative of the Roller family, so named because of their rolling courtship display flight.  The Dollarbird visits Australia each year to breed.  It has mostly dark brown upperparts, washed heavily with blue-green on the back and wing coverts.  The flight feathers of the wing and tail are dark blue.  The short, thick-set bill is orange-red, tipped with black.

The origin of the dollbird's name stems from the silvery, circular patches on the underside of the wings. thought to resemble the American silver collard coin.  In flight, the pale blue coin-shaped patches towards the tips of its wings are clearly visible.  Both sexes are similar, although the female is slightly duller.  Young dollarbirds are duller then the adults and lack the bright blue gloss on the throat.  The bill and feet are brownish in colour instead of red.

The dollarbird arrives in northern and eastern Australia in September each year to breed.  In March and April the birds return to New Guinea and adjacent islands to spend the winter. In Australia the dollarbird inhabits open wooded areas, normally with mature, hollow-bearing trees suitable for nesting.

This bird feeds almost exclusively insects, and appear particularly fond of hard=skinned flying insects like beetles but they will take any large insect or even feed on swarming insects.  They search for food from a conspicuous perch and then capture it in skilful aerial pursuits, before returning to the same perch.  Occasionally, they have been seen feeding on grasshoppers on the ground, although this practice is uncommon, and also catch other small animals.

Dollarbirds are aerial feeders and like other rollers are flying acrobats, wheeling and swooping about.  They catch insects on the wing with their short flat bills that are broad at the base.  They may also take insects and lizards from on the ground.  Large insects are brought back to the perch, to be beaten to death and to knock of less edible bits like hard wing cases.  They feed in the cooler afternoon and evening,  During the hottest part of the day they may hide away or simply remain motionless on their favourite perch.

During breeding season, dollarbirds are seen flying in characteristic rolling flights.  These flights are more common in the evening, and are accompanied by cackling calls.  The white eggs are laid in an unlined tree hollow and are incubated by both adults.  The young birds are also cared for by both parents and the same nesting site may be used for several years.  The youngsters don't have the colouring of their parents.

The Anula tribe of Northern Australia associate the dollarbird with rain, and call it the rain-bird.   A man who has the bird for his totem can make rain at a certain pool.  He catches a snake, puts it alive into the pool, and after holding it under water for a time takes it out, kills it, and lays it down by the side of the creek.  Then he makes an arched bundle of grass stalks in imitation of a rainbow, and sets it up over the snake.  After that all he does is to sing over the snake and the mimic rainbow; sooner or later the rain will fall.  They explain this procedure by saying that long ago the dollarbird had as a mate at this spot, a snake, who lived in the pool and used to make rain by spitting up into the sky till a rainbow and clouds appeared and rain fall (From Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) The Gold Bough.  1922. Ch. 2.  The Magical Control of Rain).

There are of course other 'rollers' and dollarbirds in other part of the world.  I have just included here the particular dollarbird that visits our shores.

Goodnight, sleep well little dollarbird.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


When looking through my diary the other day I mentioned to himself that we had an appointment on 29th May and he, with that mind of his that never seems to forget anything historical, reminded me that it would be Oak Apple Day.  Of course I had to ask what that meant and he explained it to me.  I decided to do some research, which is what I did, and I now share with you the information I found about this once very important day.  Incidentally, MOH said they did wear *'oak apples' on their lapels back when he was a youngster in the UK.   He emigrated from there in 1960.

This is a picture of an **'oak apple' gall described below.

Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day was a formal public holiday celebrated in England on 29 May to commemorate the restoration of the English monarchy, in May 1660.

In 1660, Parliament declared 29 May a public holiday:

"Parliament has ordered the 29 of May, the King's birthday, to be forever kept a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King's return to his Government, he entering London that day."

The public holiday, Oak Apple Day, was formally abolished in 1859, but the date retains some significance in local or institutional customs.  It is, for example, kept as Founder's Day in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (founded by Charles 2 in 1681).

Traditional celebrations to commemorate the event often entailed *the wearing of oak apples (a type of **plant gall) or sprigs of oak leaves, in reference to the occasion after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, when the future Charles 2 of England escaped the Roundhead army by hiding in an oak tree near Boscobel House.

Charles 2 of England:

Following the execution of King Charles 1 in 1649, his eldest son made a brave though misguided attempt to regain the throne.  In 1651 his hopes were crushed at Worcester in the final conflict of the Civil War.  Young Charles was forced to flee for his life.  Initially he set out to cross the River Severn into Wales, but found his way blocked by Cromwell's patrols.  He sought refuge instead at #Boscobel House in Shropshire, hiding first in a tree which is now known as The Royal Oak and then spent the night in a priest-hole in the house's attic.  Charles then travelled in disguise via other safe houses before escaping to France.
Below is a descendant of the original Royal Oak:

At some Oxford and Cambridge colleges a toast is still drunk to celebrate Oak Apple Day.

Boscobel House.  These days it is managed by the British Trust:

  ** An OAK APPLE is the common name for a large, round, vaguely apple-like gall commonly found on many species of oak.  Oak apples range in size from 2-5 cm in diameter and are caused by chemicals injected by the larva of certain kinds of gall wasp in the family Cynipidae.  The adult female wasp lays single eggs in developing leaf buds.  The wasp larvae feed on the gall tissue resulting from their secretions.  Considerable confusion exists in the general 'literature' between the oak apple and the oak apple gall.  The oak marble is frequently called the oak apple due to the superficial resemblance and the preponderance of the oak marble gall in the wild.  Other galls found on oak trees include the Oak artichoke gall and the Acorn cup gall but each of these has its own distinctive form.

# Boscobel House was built in about 1632, when John Giffard of Whiteladies converted a timber-framed farmhouse into a hunting lodge.  The Giffard family were Roman Catholics, at a time when the religion suffered persecution.  Tradition holds that the true purpose of Boscobel was to serve as a secret place for the shelter of catholics in times of need. 

I actually posted this late on 28th May (10.42 p.m. WST) as I wanted to make sure it would appear early on 29 May.  I will be out in the morning so wouldn't have been able to post it till late in the day.


The name cassowary comes from two Papuan words 'kasu' meaning horned and 'weri' meaning head, referring to the prominent casque on its head.  An adult cassowary can stand up to 1.8 metres (6') tall and the average weight is 38kg (84 lb) for males and 47kg (104 lb) for females.

The cassowaries are ratites, very large flightless birds, in the genus Casuarius native to the tropical forests of New Guinea, nearby islands and northern eastern Australia.  There are three extant species recognised today; the most common of these, the Southern Cassowary, is the third tallest and second heaviest living bird smaller only than the ostrich and emu.  Cassowaries mainly feed on fruit, although all species are truly omnivorous and will take a range of other plant food including shots, grass seeds, and fungi in addition to invertebrates and small vertebrates.  They are very shy, but when provoked they are capable of inflicting injuries to dogs and people, although fatalities are extremely rare.

Cassowaries have three-toed feet with sharp claws.  The second toe, the inner one in the medial position, sports a dagger-like claw that is 125mm (5 in) long. This claw is particularly fearsome since cassowaries sometimes kick humans and animals with their enormously powerful legs.  They can run up to50 km/h (31/mph) through the dense forest.  They can jump up to 1.5 m (4.9ft) and they are good swimmers, crossing wide rivers and swimming in the sea as well.

Cassowaries are solitary birds except during courtship, egg-laying and sometimes around ample food supplies.  The male cassowary defends a territory of about 7 square kilometres (1,700 acres) for itself and its mate, while females have overlapping territories of several males.  While females move between satellite territories of different males, they appear to remain within the same territories for most of their lives, mating with the same or closely related males over the course of their life span.  Courtship and pair bonding rituals begin with the vibratory sounds broadcast by females.  Males approach and run with necks parallel to the ground with dramatic movements of the head, which accentuate the front neck region.

The female approaches, drumming slowly.  The male will crouch upon the ground and the female will either step on the male's back for a moment before crouching beside him in preparation for copulation or she may attack.  This is often the case with the females pursuing the males in ritualistic chasing behaviours that generally culminate in water.  The male cassowary dives into the water and submerges himself up to his upper neck and head.  The female pursues him into the water where he eventually drives her to the shallows where she crouches making ritualistic motions of her head.  Males are far more tolerant of one another than females, which do not tolerate the presence of other females.

The breeding season starts in May or June.  Females lay three to eight large, dark bright green or pale green-blue eggs in each clutch in a prepared heap of leaf litter.  Only ostrich and emu eggs are larger than those of the cassowary.  The female does not care for the eggs or the chicks but moves on to lay eggs in the nests of several other males.  The male incubates the eggs for 50-52 days, removing or adding litter to regulate the temperature, then protects the brown-striped chicks, who stay in the nest for about nine months, defending them fiercely against all potential predators, including humans.  The young males then go off to find a territory of their own.  Young cassowaries are brown and have buffy stripes.

The cassowary is Australia's largest land animal and plays a unique role in the ecology of the World Heritage listed rainforests of tropical Australia.  Both the Australian Government's Environment Protestion and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and the State of Queensland's Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 1994 list the Southern Cassowary as an endangered species.    These guardians of the rainforest are still threatened by habitat loss, road deaths and attacks by dogs.  More than 80% of its prime habitat, coastal lowland rainforest, has been cleared over the last 100 years.  Nearly a quarter of the remaining cassowary habitat has poor conservation protection.  Links between the remaining patches of rainforest are essential if the cassowary is to survive.  Scientists believe only 1200-1500 cassowaries survive in the wild of Australia; this is comparable with the number of Giant Pandas in China.

Cassowaries are a keystone species which means they are vital for seed dispersal in the rainforest.  Over 150 rainforest plants rely on them, especially for dispersing the seeds of large-fruit species.  The ecology and extensive distribution of the cassowary makes it an effective conservation 'flagship' species whose conservation will have significant flow on benefits for many other species and ecosystems.

Some beautiful aboriginal art depicting cassowaries and their chicks.

This is an interesting item I found while researching the cassowary:

The cassowary is native to New Guinea and Australia and not found anywhere in North Borneo so why would this flightless bird be chosen for North Borneo stamps instead of other birds?  The answer is, it's a mistake in design?  According to L. Shipman's "Postal History of North Borneo (part 3)" the bird intended was a megapode (Megapodius freycinet) and not the cassowary.  (that sounds as though the megapode has a French flavour...'freycinet" although I could be wrong).

P.S.  Australians may wonder why I didn't include corella under "C" but I am thinking seriously of doing a separate type of post for our beautiful parrots.  Is that a good idea do you think?

Monday, May 27, 2013

B is for BROLGA

The Brolga (Grus rubicunda) is a tall bird with a large beak, long slender neck and stilt-like legs.  The sexes are indistinguishable in appearance although the females are usually a little smaller.  The adult has a grey-green, skin-covered crown, and the face, cheeks and throat pouch are also featherless and are coral red.  Other parts of the head are olive green and clothed in dark bristles.  The gular pouch, which is particularly pendulous in adult males, is covered with such dense bristles to make it appear black.  The beak is greyish-green, long and slender, and the iris is yellowish-orange.  The ear coverts appear as a grey patch of small feathers surrounded by red naked skin and the body plumage is silvery-grey.

The feathers on the back the the wing covets have pale margins.  The primary wing feathers are black and the secondaries grey. The legs and feet are greyish-black.  Juveniles lack the red band and have fully feathered heads with dark irises.  A full-grown brolga can reach a height of 0.7 to 1.3 metres (2'4" to 4'3") and has a wingspan of 1.7 to 2.4 metres (5'7" to 7'10").  Adult males average slightly less than 7 kilograms (15 lb) with females averaging a little under 6 kilograms (13 lb).  The weight can range from 3.7 to 8.7 kilograms (8.2 to 19 lb).

Originally the brolga was known as the Native Companion and is a member of the crane family.  It has also been known as the Australian Crane, a term coined in 1865 by well-known ornithological artist John Gould in his "Birds of Australia".  The brolga inhabits large open wetlands, grassy plains, coastal mudflats and irrigated croplands and, less frequently, mangrove-studded creeks and estuaries.  It is less common in arid and semi-arid regions, but will occur close to water. It is found across tropical northern Australia, southwards through north-east and east central areas, as well as central New South Wales to western Victoria.  Although this bird is not considered endangered over the majority of its range, populations are showing some decline, especially in southern Australia, and local action plans are being undertaken in some areas.  It is the official bird emblem of the state of Queensland.  (It is not found in the area where we live in south-west Western Australia so it is not a bird I am familiar with).

Outside the breeding the season, brolgas form large family groups and flocks of up to a hundred birds.  These groups may be partially nomadic or may stay in the same area.  Some birds migrate northwards.  They are omnivorous (feeding on both vegetable and animal matter), but primarily feed upon tubers and some crops.  Some insects, molluscs, amphibians and even mice are also taken.

Brolgas are well known for their ritualised, intricate mating dances.  The performance begins with the bird picking up some grass and tossing it into the air before catching it in its bill.  The bird then jumps a metre (yard) into the air with outstretched wins and continues by stretching its neck, bowing, strutting around, calling and bobbing its head up and down.  Sometimes just one brolga dances for its mate; often they dance in pairs; and sometimes a whole group of about a dozen dance together, lining up roughly opposite each other before they start.

Brolgas probably mate for life, and pair bonds are strengthened during elaborate courtship displays, which involve much dancing. leaping, wing-flapping and loud trumpeting.  An isolated territory is established, and is vigorously defended by both partners.  The white (blotched with brown and purple) eggs are laid in a single clutch.  The nest is a large mound of vegetation on a small island in a shallow waterway or swamp.  Both adults incubate the eggs and care for the young birds.

A pair of brolgas building their nest, a nest with eggs, a close-up of an egg, and a brolga chick:

Brolgas in flight:

Within New South Wales, brolga numbers have been much reduced because of windspread drainage of suitable habitat for agriculture, land reclamation and water regulation, but birds are still common and widespread throughout Australia's north.

Aboriginal art depicting brolgas:

Brolgas on a 45 cent Australian stamp:

Sunday, May 26, 2013


I really enjoyed doing the A-Z series on animals and appreciate those that followed some or all of the posts and hope you enjoyed them.  I decided, as I seldom have anything of importance to post on a personal basis, and because I enjoy doing it I am now going to do an A-Z series on birds.  I will try to do mainly Australian birds or endangered species so here goes with another series for my own pleasure and hopefully the pleasure of others as well.

 The Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea) is a medium-sized dark grey bird with a short strong bill, brown wings and a long black tail tinted greenish in sunlight.  The grey feathers on the head, neck and breast are brushed with paler grey-white and the wings are brownish.  The legs and bill are black and the eyes brown or white.It measures around 33 cm (13 in) in length.

Originally described by ornithologist John Could in 1837, its specific epithet is Latin "cinerea" = 'grey'. (The bird was named by early settlers after the Biblical apostles who followed Christ. It was thought at that time the birds always gathered in groups of twelve ).  This bird is normally seen in groups of six to ten birds, usually on the ground.  It belongs to the group of birds known as 'mud-nesters', the Family Cororacidae, noted for their communal life style and their bowl nests constructed of mud and plant fibres.

This bird is found in eastern Australia in inland areas from lower Cape York Peninsula, Queensland to northern Victoria and from Naracoorte to Mount Lofty Ranges, South Australia.  There is also an isolated population in the Elliott and Katherine areas of the Northern Territory.

The Apostlebird is found in open dry forests and woodlands near water.  It may also be found in farmlands with trees, as well as along roadsides, in orchards and on golf courses.  As far as seasonal movements are concerned it is sedentary, with some local movements to more open areas in autumn and winter.

The Apostlebird usually eats seeds and vegetable matter, insects and other invertebrates and, sometimes, small vertebrates.  In autumn and winter, it will move to more open country, where seeds become the more important part of its diet.  It forages on the ground in groups, often in association with the white-winged Chough.

Apostlebirds form a 'breeding unit' of around ten related birds - a dominant male and several females plus immature birds (the previous season's young) that act as helpers.  The nest is a large mud bowl, placed on a horizontal branch 3-20 metres high, and reinforced and lined with grass.  All members of a group assist with nest building, as well as feeding of nestlings, while only the adults usually incubate the eggs.  More than one female may lay eggs in the same nest.  While many eggs may be laid usually only four nestlings will survive to fledge, with numbers possibly restricted by the size of the nest.  Two broods may be raised in a season.

A mud nest high in a eucalypt tree.

The Apostlebird can become quite tame around farms, foraging with domestic poultry, and is common around camp sites.  It can be seen dust-bathing by roadsides.

Not all the birds in this series will be endangered or even Australian.  They could be Aussie birds that are not endemic to Western Australia so I will also be learning about birds of which I have little knowledge.  Birds to me are such beautiful creatures.