The Spanish Ambassador came to visit every morning through winter as I stirred the porridge—just before it was time to wake everybody up. Snuffling into the necks of sleeping children, flapping back quilts, tugging at big toes, letting in movement and noise in readiness for action. But this ritual happened in the still part of the day. It was the same every day. First he would flop onto the bough of a nearby Japanese maple; then, with a kind of casual precision, he would fly straight at the window to land on the narrow ledge before bringing one yellow eye, and then the other, up to the glass. He was inspecting me, and I was inspecting him. It didn’t matter how vigorously I stirred the pot—he was undeterred. But if I broke protocol by opening a cupboard or turning on a tap, he was off: back to the bough for indignant preening, or away; gone from the kitchen window until the next day.
Even before the Spanish Ambassador singled me out for scrutiny, I had special affection for the pied currawong. I recognised it by its call: that unmistakable echoing—spooky and cheerful, spooky and cheerful—among the plane trees as I left my office to meet friends for a drink on a long summer evening, or hurried home in the already-dark of a winter night. By the time my daily commute was no longer ten minutes of bicycle coasting to the edge of Brunswick but a V/Line train expedition to the mountains, the number of pied currawongs inhabiting the grounds and parks around my work seemed to have grown, steadily and reliably, every year.
Hearing the pied currawong’s familiar call gave continuity to my tree-change from urban to rural and helped cover up the strangeness of the leap we had made into the relative unknown. A few days after we arrived at our new family home, we woke to find countless millipedes crawling everywhere over its roof and external walls. An army of pied currawongs soon came to the rescue, and spent the whole morning feasting in high spirits until the infestation had gone. Well, we thought it was the currawongs that saved us, although we wondered afterwards about the large size of this regiment and its resemblance to the wild parties of white-winged choughs that inhabit my parents’ bush block outside Castlemaine. Currawongs are often mistaken for choughs, Australian crows, little ravens or even magpies.
Their conflation with the family Corvidae began with the early colonial settlement of Australia. John White, the First Fleet ship’s surgeon and naturalist, provided the earliest European description of the pied currawong, which he called the ‘White-Vented Crow’. ‘The whole habit and general appearance of the bird,’ he wrote in his 1790 Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, ‘sufficiently justify its being regarded as a species of Corvus’ (1790, 251). White had sent a variety of specimens to England, where they were drawn by the talented natural history artist Sarah Stone. Her watercolour illustration of an animated-looking currawong gazing back from its perch on a tree branch is included as an engraving in his book. The bird’s signature white wing and tail markings are visible, but its eyes are shown as black and beady rather than round and yellow.
The English naturalist George Shaw was the first to describe the currawong scientifically, giving it the Latin designation Strepera graculina—from strepere, meaning noisy. In his ambitious General Zoology of Systematic Natural History, he departed from White’s classification, writing: ‘I have considered this bird as a species of Corvus; but am at present inclined to think it more properly a species of Gracula.’ He concluded the entry by noting ‘it is said to be of a noisy and restless disposition, resembling in its manner the European Magpie’ (1809, 462–3). Later on, in 1848, the celebrated ornithologist John Gould agreed with Shaw’s distinction, describing this species under the latter’s chosen name in his encyclopaedic Birds of Australia. By including prominently the colonial term ‘Pied Crow-Shrike’ under the main heading for the species, however, Gould perpetuated the idea of its kinship with the crow. His description of the pied currawong’s ‘beautiful yellow’ iris is vividly realised in Elizabeth Gould’s illustration of a pair of currawongs framed by a spray of leaves and shining black berries. ‘The flesh of this species is frequently eaten by the colonists,’ Gould added drily to his commentary, ‘and is by some considered a delicacy’ (1848, 42).
‘Pied Crow-Shrike’ was one of those odd hybrid names that reveal the ways settler culture clung to familiar things when confronted with strange antipodean flora and fauna. Other nineteenth-century vernacular terms included bell-magpie, black magpie, scrub magpie, tallawong, chillawong, merola and ‘to-mor-row bird’. Colonial culture was often ignorant of Aboriginal names for species, or uninterested in them—even when it was borrowing directly from them. Currawong is derived from Aboriginal naming, though the specifics of its provenance vary between sources (some attributing it to the Jagawa language of south-east Queensland and others to Dharug around Sydney) according to Ian Fraser and Jeannie Gray—who also suggest that this term was not commonly used until the twentieth century (2013, 367).
Aboriginal people played a fundamental role in mediating settler experiences of species: sharing information, contributing specimens, facilitating travel and so on, but their contributions were rarely credited or documented in meaningful ways—as Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell demonstrate in their important book, Australia’s First Naturalists (2019, 3). Olsen and Russell’s research shows the significance of even those brief or anonymous insights into Aboriginal knowledge of species that flow through written colonial sources—glimpses that add up to something more, but which are also compelling in themselves. An 1891 Brisbane Courier article about fishing around Moreton Bay, for example, reproduces a letter by a Mr F.F. Campbell, ‘a very old resident of Amity Point, Stradbroke’, who wants to recognise ‘the correctness of Aboriginal fish-lore’ after a local man taught him the connection between the seasonal arrival of ‘flocks of “churwung”’ and an abundance of a certain kind of black fish he calls dungala’ (1891, 5).
More often, however, the writings of natural history columnists, amateur ornithologists and agriculturalists around this period chart their own complex—and often dark—relationship to the pied currawong. This bird’s adaptability, together with its outgoing personality, often literally placed it in the line of fire—especially as mass habitat clearance driven by the colonial pastoral industry progressively impacted native species. By the 1880s, self-educated naturalists such as Kenric Bennett and Price Fletcher were observing radical changes in the prevalence and behaviour of certain bird species. Bennett wrote to Fletcher from the Lachlan Plains in New South Wales in October 1880, noting that some species had completely disappeared from the area over a 16-year period, while others, ‘notably the pied crow-shrike and the minah, which were never seen when the country was first settled, are now permanent residents’ (Fletcher, 1880, 5).
Fletcher published Bennett’s comments in his popular monthly column, ‘Current Notes on Natural History’, in the Queenslander. As Tim Bonyhady has noted in The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat, Fletcher’s ‘great passion was birds—not just observing them and describing them but trying to stop their demise’ (2019, 41). Bonyhady rightly notes that Fletcher called himself the ‘Bush Naturalist’ because he had ‘no formal scientific training’ (40). But this term was also sometimes used in colonial Australia to indicate a certain ‘practical’ disposition towards the natural world that remains common: when species add pleasure and interest to human experience they are something to be celebrated, but when they interfere with material endeavour they can become a problem to be combated.
Fletcher’s columns over the winter months of 1880 document his latest observations of pied currawongs and his escalating frustration with their assaults on his fruit and vegetable crops. In July, for example, he wrote:
Gould does not consider this bird to be gregarious, thinking that the small mobs of four to eight which he saw were family groups, but around my house they have been all the month in flocks of over 100 … Until lately I should have asserted that they belonged to that class of birds that is entirely beneficial, being principally insect eaters; but to my astonishment they started eating a crop of maize I had growing, and quite surprised me by the rapidity with which they could open and eat a cob of corn just before it was quite ripe
He then added, darkly, ‘They are so bold and tame that shooting does not frighten them away from the field’ (1880, 76). Subsequent months saw the birds stealing ‘the few winter tomatoes I saved from the frost’ and ‘digging into the crowns of such sweet potatoes as show on the surface’ (1880, 5).
The pied currawong’s reputation for destruction continued to grow in the last decades of the nineteenth century. An anonymous 1896 article in the Australian Town and Country Journal, titled ‘Australian Birds: Farm, Orchard and Vineyard Pests III’, described them conclusively as the ‘most daring and notorious orchard marauder found in the whole of Australia’. This writer expresses some understanding of the bird’s predicament, observing that ‘as settlement proceeds and the scrubs and brushes from which they obtain their food are gradually being cleared and planted with cultivated fruits, these birds evidently prefer to feast upon the choice and tempting delicacies now growing in their old haunts than eke out a precarious existence searching for food in their rapidly diminishing domains’ (1896, 22).
After describing the currawong’s crop-raiding habits, however, the article argues definitively for the bird’s widespread destruction—drawing much of its detail from Australian Birds: Useful and Noxious (1890). This was a pamphlet produced by Sydney-born solicitor and horticulturalist James Norton, who considered the currawong an ‘incorrigible thief’ with an ‘impudent manner’ and hoped that fruit and vegetable growers from Melbourne to Brisbane might ‘cordially combine’ to eliminate the species. Poisoned bullock heads, baited fish traps and nets were ways he proposed to capture and destroy them. ‘I had the satisfaction during the last fruit season of beating several of the marauders to death,’ he grimly related (1890, 247).
Attitudes towards the pied currawong became even more negative in the early decades of the twentieth century, when it was seen no longer as simply an orchard thief, but also as an active agent for agricultural destruction. Its appetite for introduced noxious weeds, such as lantana, camphor laurel and, in particular, prickly pear, meant that it was blamed for distributing seeds and escalating their spread. Governor Arthur Phillip is popularly credited with introducing prickly pear to Australia upon his arrival with the First Fleet in 1788, having collected cuttings at Rio de Janeiro with a vague plan to establish a cochineal dye industry at the new settlements.
But, as expressed in an editorial of the Cactus Journal of the British Cactus and Succulent Society in 1937, the variety brought by Phillip, Opuntia monacantha, did not spread ‘to any serious extent’ (1937, 60). The real culprit, Opuntia inermis, had been taken to New South Wales in 1839 and jealously guarded as a rarity before being carefully propagated and distributed to various districts where it was used as a hedge. It later began spreading across prime agricultural land at an alarming rate. The problem escalated further in 1902 when it was used for feeding stock during a major drought. At the same time, the overgrazing of native grasses reduced competition for the cactus. Roaming cattle, as well as birds, native fauna, wind and water, helped its distribution.
Early governmental inaction meant the prickly pear problem continued to increase until, by the early 1920s, it had taken over more than 250,000 square kilometres. Donald Freeman has detailed the inadequacies of indirect policies, such as land-tenure legislation and clearance incentives, as well as the failures of direct policies instituted after the turn of the century. These included intensive mechanical clearing and poisoning—coupled with ‘the ruthless extermination of native species of bird, notably the emu, the crow, and the scrub magpie [pied currawong]’ (1992, 419). With the backing of government policy, the undeclared war that had been brewing against the pied currawong soon became an open campaign.
From the first years of the twentieth century, newspaper articles in Queensland had registered growing pressure on the government to offer a ‘bonus’ for the destruction of the species. The Brisbane Telegraph reported a parliamentary discussion of this question in 1901—and observed that a proposed provision for the destruction of the currawong (referred to as the ‘scrub magpie’) would stand in direct contradiction to the existing Native Birds Protection Act. The journalist captured the hyperbole and misinformation that surrounded the debate in dry terms, noting that one member, a Mr Bell, ‘instanced the scrub magpie as a sort of demon in the way of scattering the seeds of the prickly pear’ and added ‘it was a bird which, so far as he knew, had not justified its existence’—attracting criticisms that this ‘was rather a harsh way of judging the handiwork of Providence’. As the debate continued, the problem of naming and identification also arose:
the general plea being that nobody knew such a bird as the scrub magpie. Men knew the magpie, but as to the scrub magpie, who was he? That could be set right, said Mr Bell, by hunting up the scientific name of the bird … This afforded the Attorney General an opportunity to suggest that there need be no resort to scientific names, it would be better to stick to the homely terms known to everybody. (1901, 4)
As a result of these uncertainties, the scrub magpie/pied currawong temporarily escaped being ‘deleted’ in Queensland in 1901—but the question of a ‘bonus’ to be paid by the government for its destruction remained. Within a decade it was designated a ‘pear planter’ in both Queensland and New South Wales (Brisbane Courier, 1912, 9) and various shires and ‘bird pest destruction boards’ made provisions allowing for its destruction throughout both states, with many paying bounties for skins. ‘Black magpies are outlaws: May be shot on sight’ announced one headline in the Sydney Daily Telegraph (1929, 21). In 1928, the Brisbane and East Moreton Pest Destruction Board reported the killing of 10,938 pied currawongs in a single year. Between February 1926, when it was first established, and December 1933, this board alone paid bounties for the killing of 55,206 (South Coast Bulletin, 1934, 1).
Sensational newspaper headlines, nature columns and letters from correspondents gave narrative force to the currawong’s perceived negative traits. In ‘Nature Notes for Young Queenslanders’ in June 1926, for example, the Brisbane Telegraph insisted that the currawong is ‘one of our most unpopular birds … It is a fact [that it] causes the spread of the pear more than any other bird, besides being a fruit stealer. Although belonging to the highly developed family of the magpies … the currawong is a stupid bird … It can easily be approached and shot’ (1926, 11). The Sydney tabloid Smith’s Weekly put this even more baldly in its ‘Nature Notes’ column; commenting under the subheading ‘Doesn’t mind the gun’ that ‘every robber has to be shot before the last one disappears’ (1926, 14). Pied currawongs’ boldness and ebullience made them easy to vilify as ‘larrikins … roving vagrants, idle, rowdy, ripe for any mischief … as undisciplined as a mob of booing youths’ as the Townsville Daily Bulletin put it in 1929 (15). Anthropomorphising the species in this way as somehow outlawed or criminal worked to diminish the impact of its suffering and spread the conviction that killing it was a necessity.
Around the same time, famine began impacting the currawong. The introduction in the late 1920s of Cactoblastis cactorum, an Argentinian moth that feeds on the prickly pear, successfully contained the infestation. As a result, according to a correspondent for the Sydney Mail called ‘Isles’, country towns had become ‘filled with the currawongs trying to get sustenance … their plaintive moan now fills the air. Those that escape the stones of small boys die starving by the wayside’ (1933, 48). This writer’s compassion was immediately derided by other correspondents, however, who maintained that the currawong was a great pest that decimated crops and distributed noxious weeds. ‘At present they are eating the berries of a camphor laurel tree,’ wrote one, ‘and as I write I can lay the pen aside and shoot them without getting on my feet’ (1933, 25).
But the currawong was not without some well-known admirers and defenders. Nature writer Amy Mack spoke up for the species in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1922, noting ‘there is something distinctly rakish in the cut of their long tails and big beaks, and in the gleam of their yellow eyes’ and expressed ‘a deep sympathy with those creatures of the wild, which are robbed of their natural food by the encroachment of man, and then are treated as outlaws because they help themselves to a few of man’s planted treasures in return’ (29 July 1922, 7). ‘Black Magpies’, a joyful poem for children that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in August 1925 under the pseudonym ‘Alter Ego’, was later attributed to Amy Mack’s sister Louise Mack; and her fellow Bulletin regular Roderic Quinn also wrote a whimsical children’s poem about the bird in August 1926, just as the pest destruction boards approached their heyday—as though literary homage and nature appreciation could somehow stay oblivious to the carnage happening in reality.
More practically, the novelist and nature lover Wolla Meranda wrote to David G. Stead (father of author Christina Stead) from her home outside Bathurst in 1930 expressing concern for the species. ‘Poison baits that look like grubs in the ground have thinned them out terribly,’ she wrote, ‘and now the guns of the town sportsmen seem likely to make the bird extinct.’ David Stead was a vice-president and founding member of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia, established in Sydney in 1909. He published extracts from Meranda’s letter in a column in the Sydney Mail, and expressed his own concerns about the currawong’s exclusion from the Birds and Animals Protection Act (1918–1930), writing: ‘it is one of those species of our native birds requiring the most discriminating treatment under law, because, even if we grant that it is a pest in some places, that is no excuse for its slaughter elsewhere’ (1930, 19). Stead advocated a more ‘rational system of oversight and control’ than the reflex determination to ‘wipe out’ species deemed to be pests or threats to agricultural productivity.
Examining the history of a species such as the pied currawong gives a stark understanding of the relentless system of attack and counterattack with which colonial-settler culture has approached the environment. When habitat clearance disrupts species behaviour, species are punished for their willingness to adapt. When human folly results in environmental (and economic) catastrophe—as in the spread of prickly pear—species are again blamed and punished. The pied currawong continues to adapt itself to changing urban and regional conditions in the context of climate change, landscape degradation, metropolitan development and the availability of new food sources. Its fierce intelligence paired with what scientists call phenotypic plasticity—an ability to change in response to environmental factors—mean is it well equipped to meet new challenges.
The Melbourne-based conservation organisation Birdlife Australia has recorded significant behavioural change among pied currawongs in recent decades. Historically, the species would visit lowlands during winter before returning to higher elevations to breed. But now many populations are remaining in lower and coastal regions all year. Conversely, other flocks of pied currawong are wintering in mountainous regions, attracted by scavenging opportunities at alpine resorts. Scientists have come to recognise two different evolutionary types inhabiting urban environments: ‘relicts’ that predate urbanisation and ‘divergent’ populations that have become established where cities already exist.
Despite its reputation for scattering the landscape with the seeds of unwanted vegetation, the currawong also makes a valuable contribution to the wellbeing of Australian forest habitats by feeding on forest pests, including stick insects destructive to eucalypts, and by dispersing the seeds of native plants—as described by Gisela Kaplan in her book Bird Minds (2015, 187). But it continues to be seen often as a kind of malefactor—a noisy, black-cloaked villain—especially in light of another crime for which it is becoming increasingly notorious: murder. As vigorous omnivores, pied currawongs are known to predate the nests of other birds during breeding season to supplement their usual diet of fruit, seeds and insects. Anecdotal evidence suggests they may even attack and devour adult birds of other species, sometimes after daring and ruthless aerial pursuits (2017, 298). Unfortunately their prey are all too often species valued by humans as more endearing or significant—such as the bright-blue superb fairywren, which also happens to be an inveterate predator (see Fraser, 2012).
Pied currawongs’ increasing numbers and the flagrance of their depredations can today attract negative press reminiscent of sensational headlines from the past: ‘Carpark currawongs could trigger bird decimation’ suggests one online article about a pair of currawongs that had set up camp in a Brisbane carpark (2018). The ominous expressions ‘containing’ and ‘controlling’ have crept into scientific literature examining currawong behaviour in relation to rapidly declining native bird populations (see Bayly and Blumstein, 2001). The jury is still out on whether they target more common introduced species or vulnerable native species when raiding nests. More research needs to be done. But the long history of privileging one species over another as we systematically destroy habitats, and then imagining we can control the outcomes through further intervention, is something that is important to recognise and learn from.
I was made to think about the complexities of these entanglements with species and environment as I started researching this essay. Dragging my children through the front door for a Saturday outing, I received a text from some avid bird-spotting friends inviting us to join their bird trivia afternoon on Zoom. ‘Maybe!’ I replied, panicking about my ignorance. ‘We are just heading out for a walk in the Wombat State Forest, so will look out for any feathered residents.’ Our tree change added pressure to the situation—would they expect us to know anything about the birds from our region?
On the drive I googled ‘Wombat State Forest pied currawong’ to find out if currawongs were a significant presence there. I was expecting to see a blog or two; maybe a population distribution map. What I found instead was a series of recent articles about a mineral company being granted gold-exploration rights in the area, and the pushback from outraged environmental groups and local residents (see, for example, Perkins, 2020). Much of the forest had been decimated by mining and related logging during the mid-nineteenth-century gold rush, but this damage was greatly ameliorated over time following the establishment of the Wombat State Forest in 1871. I was perplexed by a sense of historical déjà vu. But even more so by the name of the mineral company: Currawong Resources. Why would a mineral company name itself after a species whose habitat it would be helping to destroy?
I decided to ask and received an almost immediate reply from one of the company’s principal consultants. He was very affectionate towards currawongs, praising their appearance, song and ‘no-nonsense’ attitude. He sent me a picture of a flock on his washing line and I told him about the Spanish Ambassador. He noted that the currawong’s habitat coincides with the company’s range of projects across Victoria, and added it ‘is very resourceful and able to deal with a range of environmental conditions, which is very appropriate’. So, in a sense, a mining company representative can love a species for the same reasons many others might hate it.
Regardless of who loves it or hates it and why, the pied currawong has withstood dramatic changes in fortune since the European settlement of Australia and has continued to thrive. Species don’t need our love or hatred anyway; they need dedicated ecological regeneration and protection. A species’ adaptability is not an excuse to continue repeating the same disastrous historical cycle of habitat clearance and interventionist management. But perhaps the currawong’s confident, clear-noted
call—spooky and cheerful, spooky and cheerful—can be taken as a declaration of a native species’ resilience, as well as yet another signal of the urgent need for environmental change. •
Rachael Weaver is a Senior Research Fellow in English at the University of Melbourne. Her most recent book (with Ken Gelder) is The Colonial Kangaroo Hunt (Miegunyah, 2020).
Illustrations by Jon Kudelka
Anon., ‘Australian birds: Farm, orchard and vineyard pests III’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 7 March 1896, p. 22.
Anon., ‘Black magpies are outlaws’, Daily Telegraph, 2 September 1929, p. 21.
Anon., ‘Editorial’, Cactus Journal, 5.3 (March 1937), pp. 61–2.
Anon., ‘Gathering for winter’, Townsville Daily Bulletin, 10 July 1929, p. 15.
Anon., ‘Interesting statistics’, South Coast Bulletin, 19 January 1934, p. 1.
Anon., ‘Letter to the editor’, Brisbane Courier, 10 July 1912, p. 9.
Anon., ‘Nature notes: Doesn’t mind the gun’, Smith’s Weekly, 7 August 1926, p. 14.
Anon., ‘Nature notes for young queenslanders: Currawongs’, Telegraph, 19 June 1926, p. 11.
Anon., ‘Pars in parliament’, Telegraph, 26 October, 1901, p. 4.
Anon., ‘Pied currawong’, <https://www.birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/pied-currawong>, accessed 12 May 2021).
Anon., ‘The fish and fisheries of Moreton Bay’, Brisbane Courier, 22 December 1891, p. 5.
Karen L. Bayly, and Daniel T. Blumstein, ‘Pied currawongs and the decline of native birds’, Emu–Austral Ornithology, 101.3 (2001), pp. 199–204.
Tim Bonyhady, The Enchantment of the Long-haired Rat: A Rodent History of Australia, Text, Melbourne, 2019.
Price Fletcher, ‘Current notes on natural history’, Queenslander, 17 July 1880, p. 76.
Price Fletcher, ‘Current notes on natural history’, Queenslander, 25 August 1880, p. 5.
Ian Fraser and Jeannie Gray, Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide, CSIRO, Collingwood, Vic., 2013.
Ian Fraser, ‘Are currawongs always wong’, Ian Fraser, talking naturally, 2012, <http://ianfrasertalkingnaturally.blogspot.com/2012/08/are-currawongs-always-wong.html>, accessed 12 May 2021.
Donald B. Freeman, ‘Prickly pear menace in eastern Australia 1880–1940’, Geographical Review, 82.4 (1992), pp. 413–30.
Graeme Fulton, ‘Carpark currawongs could trigger bird decimation’, UQ News, <https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2018/07/carpark-currawongs-could-trigger-bird-decimation>, accessed 13 May 2021.
John Gould, The Birds of Australia Vol. II, John Gould, London, 1848.
Sandra Henderson and Lia Battison, ‘Sacred kingfisher interaction with grey butcherbird and pied currawongs’, Canberra Bird Notes, 42.3 (2017), p. 298.
Isles, ‘The tragic fate of the currawong’, Sydney Mail, 3 May 1933, p. 48.
Gisela Kaplan, Bird Minds: Cognition and Behaviour in Australian Native Birds, CSIRO Publishing, Clayton, Vic., 2015.
Amy Eleanor Mack, ‘Black magpies’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1922, p. 7.
James Norton, Australian Birds: Useful and Noxious, Govt. Printer, Sydney, 1890.
O.P.Q., ‘The currawong’, Sydney Mail, 27 September 1933, p. 25.
Penny Olsen and Lynette Russell, Australia’s First Naturalists: Indigenous People’s Contribution to Early Zoology, NLA Publishing, Canberra, 2019.
Perkins, Miki, ‘Protesters demand miners stop looking for gold in Wombat State Forest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 2020, <https://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/protesters-demand-miners-stop-looking-for-gold-in-wombat-state-forest-20200623-p55598.html>, accessed 13 May 2021.
George Shaw, General Zoology Vol. II, G Kearsley, London, 1809.
David G. Stead, ‘The merola or currawong’, Sydney Mail, 22 October 1930, p. 19.
John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, J Debrett, London, 1790.