[canberrabirds] article in The Australian about Orange-footed Scrubfowl

To: Con Boekel <>, "Birding-Aus (Forum)" <>, NT Birds group <>
Subject: [canberrabirds] article in The Australian about Orange-footed Scrubfowl
From: Bob Gosford <>
Date: Thu, 27 Dec 2012 18:30:28 -0700

For those who can't find their way around The Oz paywall, here is the poece.

Love and war in our own backyard

   - From:The Australian <>
   - December 28, 2012 12:00AM

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[image: Orange-footed scrubfowl]

The orange-footed scrubfowl, commonly known as the bush chook. Picture:
Stuart Walmsley *Source:* News Limited

*IT begins with a screeching, a screaming in the darkness, at once a note
of triumph and a near-despairing wail. It holds a second, swelling,
trembling, hanging in the air, then quickens, a cascade of high-pitched
shrieks pours forth, loud enough and piercing enough to wake the comatose
and strike an anguished apprehension into all who hear. Another cry, and
yet another, more stretched out, now, more spacious, reflective almost,
followed by a final spasm of querulous self-affirmation - until the noise
fades into chokes and gurgles, and dies slowly away.*

The orange-footed scrubfowl, lord of all Darwin's suburban blocks and
shaded parks, has spoken, as it does every night, repeatedly, in its
imperious fashion, stamping its authority upon the northern capital,
subjecting the whole cityscape to its jagged wall of sound. Such is the
territorial cry of Megapodius reinwardt, most outlandish and intemperate of
all tropical Australia's repertoire of niche-adapted creatures, a bird of
excess and eccentricities, a species that seems more a product of a
Hollywood digital effects studio than of natural selection's gradual,
harmonious grind.

On first acquaintance, glimpsed skulking in some shaded patch of relict
rainforest, the scrubfowl strikes the passer-by as merely bizarre: a
dun-brown, chicken-like thing of distinctly demonic appearance: it has a
triangular head, a little crestlet, exiguous wings, deep grey feathers the
colour of a rain-filled cloud on its breast -- but these characteristics
fail to register: the eye is drawn instantly to the creature's feet:
strong, stocky, orange-scaled, claw-toed, and almost always in motion,
scraping away, digging, excavating, ripping up the landscape.
[image: Digital Pass $1 for first 28

The bird was first described in the 1820s, in the Indonesian archipelago,
at the northern frontier of its range, and named in honour of the
pioneering Dutch botanist Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt, who looked much like
a scrubfowl himself: strong-nosed, weak-chinned. He also displayed the
creature's ferocious aptitude for industry: he taught natural philosophy at
Leiden University in The Netherlands, founded the botanic gardens of Bogor
in Java and classified a large number of exotic species: but none to rival
his megapode, with its bustling lifestyle and taste for unending earthworks.

The scrubfowl is, above all else, a mound-builder: the birds mate for life
and, that business settled, each pair then devote themselves obsessively to
the task of raising up, maintaining and improving a special nesting mound.
This structure can be as much as four metres tall, and 15m across, and hold
more than 50 tonnes of decomposing organic material: leaves, soil, scrubby
detritus. You can see them strewn throughout the heart of Darwin, their
dark ramparts rising in the most inconvenient places: alongside power
substations and sewage lines, in reserves and cemeteries, close by the
Cenotaph, just beneath the harbour Esplanade. But well-kept gardens are by
far the favourite terrain: they are soft, rich of soil, and manicured, and
simply inviting devastation.

Unsurprisingly, given this penchant for wrecking private property, the bird
has an image problem. Darwin City Council distributes a tactful little
pamphlet, "Living with Orange-footed Scrubfowl". It is written by the
Wildcare charity, and seeks to cast the local avian apocalypse in soothing
terms. "We are extremely lucky to have such a diverse group of native birds
living in our back yards," it begins, emolliently, then makes a plea for
forbearance: since gardens in the tropics resemble the bird's habitat, it's
only natural that they tend to scratch around in the city's lushest back
yards, looking for suitable mound sites, digging up young plants,
disturbing sprinkler systems. What to do? Here we enter the surreal: use
heavy crushed rock as mulch, place bricks or logs over sprinkler lines,
cover seedlings with metal mesh, create a sacrificial mound to divert the
birds. Finally, give up, and accept the inevitable: "deterring mound
building can be difficult".

For the mound, of course, is life, both its symbol and its incubator, and
mound-creation is the scrubfowl's reason for being: it is in this vast,
steaming tumulus that the mother bird deposits her enormous eggs -- and the
traffic can be heavy there, and the territorial disputes intense and

Often several separate breeding pairs make use of a single mound: a
circumstance you might think could cause confusion when hatching comes --
but you would be wrong. The eggs once laid, the parents abandon them: the
baby scrubfowl tunnel their way from the mound's core up to the surface,
and head out alone on life's journey. Given their defenceless state, and
the hordes of predators lurking in the immediate surrounds, that journey
can be rather short: snakes, prowling lizards, cats, dogs and kitehawks
keep a watch, and keep the numbers down.

Indeed, the fowl is relatively rare across much of the remote Top End, and
is regarded with reverence by many groups of traditional Aboriginal people
there: to the Yolngu of far northeast Arnhem Land the bird is the
incarnation of a spirit being, a special visitor, a "mokuy" -- it can be
summoned at certain times with the yidaki, or didgeridoo: its shrieks and
cries are sure signs that an assembly of the dead is under way at the
sacred dancing ground of Balambala. Mokuy figures are often carved by
Yolngu masters, or depicted in bark paintings. Many tales are told of them:
a scrubfowl in the wild in Arnhem Land is treated with quiet respect.

Attitudes in mainstream Darwin and its satellite town of Palmerston are
more ambiguous, though, and they are hardening rapidly as the numbers of
the local scrubfowl population rise. Primary producers and fruit growers in
the sprawling rural area that spreads out to the southwest of the city
cordially dislike the creatures, and tend to be quite open about their
views. The noise isn't the problem. Strange noises aplenty fill the
outlying districts: the sound of trailbikes hurtling round backyard tracks;
canetoad croaks that sound like trailbike engines; the piping cries of
stone curlew families; the thumping beat of mid-80s vintage rock music --
all these compete with the shriek of the scrubfowl for pole position as
chief irritant in outer Darwin's bush paradise of five-acre blocks.

No: it's not the night-time calling: it's the crop-destroying and the
irrigation-wrecking that engender real fury, and trigger little outbreaks
of revenge. There have been a number of suburban cross-bow incidents, in
which scrubfowl have been slain in silence, and their arrow-pierced bodies
dumped by the side of a rural road. Further out, things get somewhat
wilder. In the Darwin River hinterland and on the plains of Marrakai, where
the mango farms stretch for kilometres on end, justice is summary: "We had
a plague of them at my place," says one well-known fruit grower: "They were
terrorising the garden, dragging mulch out on to the road, digging up $100
plants brought in from Queensland -- so we had to thin them out a bit. We
got four. They're easy to get rid of. They don't do very well. You only
have to graze them and they keel over and die. Waste not, want not, so we
made a light curry out of them." And what's the meat like? "Like chicken,
but different -- more gamey. An acquired taste, in fact: there's probably
no commercial option there." Probably not, for the scrubfowl is a protected
species under the amazingly ill-policed Territory Parks and Wildlife
Conservation Act.

But there are some Darwin-dwellers who have a fondness for the birds, and
admire their tenacity and industry, and even love them, in a half-ironic,
Top End kind of way. Artists, in particular -- themselves the ultimate
threatened species in the demotic North.

Consider Merran Sierakowski, one of the best-known print-makers of the
Territory, a long-timer at atelier Basil Hall Editions and a draftsman and
sculptor who likes to slip a little touch of whimsy into her work. An
exhibition of Sierakowski's newest pieces has just gone on view at Nomad
Art in Parap Village, a scrubfowl stronghold in the inner suburbs, and it
includes not only her flyscreen mesh soft sculptures of the birds, each one
wearing its own construction site hard hat, but also her woodblock prints
of breeding pairs.

This enthusiasm was born of tolerance, and experience: some years ago
Sierakowski moved into a large house in Rapid Creek, another scrubfowl
citadel, boggy, leafy, full of tempting backyards to vandalise, and there,
on the boundary fence, indeed, encasing the boundary fence, was a vast
mound. It had been there for 40 years: it was dark, and tall, and thick
with crenellations, and constantly under reconstruction. It seemed much
like an analogue of the unending tasks and routines of the artistic life.
The birds stayed on. They fitted in well with the property, they know their
place. They're not allowed in the front yard: in the back, they have free
rein, to fight, and squawk, and display their varied personalities.

"I really like them," says Sierakowski. "I like to watch them running and
scampering across the road, or negotiating with the dogs and cats, or
fighting with outsider scrubfowl when they turn up. Over time I've come to
feel they're lovely creatures, in their way: the male and female devote a
great deal of time to looking after each other."

Unusual theories about the birds and their habits abound in Darwin's
Bohemia, where the scrubfowl have taken on a semi-totemic status. Artist
Peter Quinn is keen on them, and makes metal versions of them.
Master-framer and cultural impresario Don Whyte spends long hours studying
them: he admires their capacity to cross roads and wait on median strips
when traffic threatens.

Ultra-long-term Darwin locals, particularly the Darwin-born, seem
especially susceptible to the charms of the creatures: they smile upon
them, and half-pity them, and view them as originals, survivors, emblems of
the city's rough, unbroken character. A hard view, at first, to share --
but over time, hatred and loathing for the birds, hideous as they are,
ungainly and disputatious, seem to fade and be replaced, at first by a kind
of indifferent acceptance, ultimately by a wary, disabused affection.

If Darwin is the end of the line, then the scrubfowl is its emblem bird.
Walk through the Botanic Gardens in the build-up season. Nothing moves in
the shadow of the overhanging rain-trees: nothing. The leaves droop. The
air pours down its humid sweat. Then, amid the dank piles of fallen leaves,
a triangular shadow stirs: bobbing, scratching, scurrying, its partner at
its side -- and then another pair comes into view, and another: the whole
decaying landscape is alive with scrubfowl, excavating, disordering,
uprooting; an army of scrubfowl, caught on life's long treadmill, much like
we who watch them, digging away.

On 27 December 2012 18:25, Con Boekel <> wrote:

>  Good read alert: There is a full page article by Nicholas Rothwell in
> today's *The Australian*: 'Love and War in our own backyard'. It
> describes affectionately the social context for a Top End issue of interest.
> I would swap Canberra's Peacockery for Darwin's Scrubfowlery any day of
> the week.
> Con

Bob Gosford
The Northern Myth blog
Alice Springs, NT
Ph: (+61) 0447024968
Twitter: @bgosford
"The NT Government does not respond to random electronic gossip sites."

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