Local Butcher with the Voice of an Angel
A beautiful song of clear, loud whistling notes rises from the still morning air. You look around, and find a black and white bird on your television aerial. Or maybe you can't spot it at all because the singer is hidden away high in the treetops.
Found across most of Australia, except Tasmania and southern Victoria, there’s a good chance of finding this interesting bird in your own backyard.
If this sound is familiar to you, then you've been listening to the concerts of one of Australia's finest singers - the Pied Butcherbird.
The Pied butcherbird may sing like an angel, but for some buddies he is their worst nightmare. Its name and the distinct hook on its beak are subtle hints to their rather gruesome feeding habits. Butcherbirds are insect eaters, but they will also go after other small meaty prey such as lizards and birds.
When a butcherbird catches its prey, he can't hold it down with his little feet like a hawk or crow would. Instead, he wedges the food into a forked branch or upon a thorn, stands back and tears it apart with his hooked beak. Hence the name 'butcher bird'. You can see the hooked beak up close in this video.
This may sound cruel but butcherbirds play an important role in our natural environment by controlling the numbers of common birds like pigeons and also reducing the insects in our neighbourhoods. Here is a busy mum removing flies from a garden to feed to her baby.
These birds live in family groups of up to about six birds and live in the same territories year after year. Not surprisingly, given their fearsome behaviour, they also defend their nests very aggressively against intruders.
Having a tight-knit family is a big help for the butcherbird because while the female constructs the nest and incubates the eggs alone, the male and other members of the group will make sure she is kept well fed. Her nest is a bowl of sticks and twigs that she lines with grasses and soft materials. She builds it in an upright tree fork up to 5 m above the ground. The family is so close that it is not uncommon for more than one female to lay her eggs in the nest as all the babies will be raised equally.
When the chick leaves the nest it will remain with its mother until almost fully grown. Young Butcherbirds tend to trail behind their mother and squeak incessantly while she catches food. They will stay around for a year and even help the parents bring up the next season’s chicks.
Don't feel too left out if you don't spot a Pied butcherbird - you're more likely to hear one than see one. Though they live across most of mainland Australia, they like to perch high in the trees where we can't easily see them. On the plus side, their loud, flute-like notes carry over a long distance and are wonderful to hear.
Pied butcherbirds mimic sounds like phones ringing, car alarms going off and dogs barking. They can also imitate other bird calls. Click to watch a video of a Pied butcherbird mimicking a range of noises - see if you can guess them all!
Butcherbirds love to eat insects, lizards, mice, and a few seeds and fruits too. Mulch your garden to encourage lizards, and plant a few fruit bearing native species to encourage birds to your place.
DID YOU KNOW?
Whenever you see the word 'pie' in a bird or animal's name, it means that the creature has two or more colours - for instance, Pied currawongs, Pied butcherbirds and magpies are all black and white, and a piebald horse is black or brown and white.