Introducing Podargus strigoides our Tawny Frogmouth
The look in those eyes makes me step back. With that, the bird’s face changes. Satisfied, it half closes its eyes. I am dismissed. Later, as I examine the series of photographs I took of our encounter, I see what I only sensed at the time in the gathering twilight. From one picture to the next, a red tinge to the outer edges of the iris intensifies and then fades. This is the stern silent warning of the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides).
Few birds have facial expressions that humans can read. Some, such as sea gulls, experience a change in eye colour with age. But only frogmouths change eye colour and glower. There is an artery circling each iris that expands and reddens each eye in moments before the bird raises its hackles.
I read this in Gisela Kaplan’s five year old book Tawny Frogmouth. Kaplan is an international expert in animal behaviour with her own bird rescue centre at her home in Armidale. Her book, published by the CSIRO is a treasure trove.
I love to read a comprehensive book about a species. There’s nothing quite like “animal facts”. Did you know that a tawny frogmouth can move its eyes in opposite directions as well as bringing them together in three different ways to see depth? This makes their binocular vision, in day or night, wider than that of most birds.
Now I can read my photos better. The one with that quizzical “over the beak” face is the bird getting a better fix of me.
All the “animal facts” will make me a better animal tracker. With their eyes half shut, their brain half awake, they literally have “half an eye out” for any movement. Camouflage grey, they will sit motionless most of the day. Their feet have special pads along their whole length to make them comfortable. Two toes go forward, one goes back and one does both and also reach to the side. This toe is for balance when perching, taking a great deal of the total weight.
These same feet help classify the frogmouth as a nightjar not an owl. There are no sharp grasping talons. Both types of birds are active at night. But unlike owls, the frogmouth searches for food on the ground, pounces on it from above or catches it mid-flight with its mouth.
Deeper in the book, I am thrilled to learn that frogmouths are territorial and will hold to a place over many years. Their bond with a mate is also long term. The pairs particularly favour open wooded areas, edges of forests and clearings. They manage tropical and temperate climates.
They like towns or cities. They adapt to people. All they want is a stable perch and a good supply of insects and small rodents like mice and rats. Moths, cockroaches, ants, termites, snails, slugs – they love all these.
Surely, now that I know where to look, I could see more of them around. Undoubtedly, they are welcome by every householder as the preferred insect and rodent controllers.
But even as they make a living of our pests, they are being killed by our pesticides. This is a subtle process. Many of the poisons work on insects and rodents slowly. The frogmouths pick off sick and dying animals as well as healthy ones. In an ecosystem, this is exactly their role.
The birds, like every vertebrate, digest their food and store compounds such as certain pesticides in their own body fat. At the end of winter, before the spring flush of insects, numbers of prey are reduced. The birds lose weight. As they live off their body fat, the neurotoxins are released. They fall to the ground in convulsions, doomed to an agonizing slow death. There is no treatment.
I stop to consider other “animal facts”. Although they are widespread this does not automatically mean their numbers are secure. Kaplan carefully notes that 70-80% of each year’s chicks die. New adults and old rarely travel further than ten kilometres. Is their population growing or declining? Does any householder report the appearance of too many birds?
Kaplan describes the affectionate birds as an “icon”. Her work, over ten years is the largest ever completed. Her study group is of only forty-six birds. There is no recent population study. Although overseas, citizens are involved in counts of nocturnal birds, I have not located any such project here. Can we be so complacent?
We also need to see each specific step that connects us to these birds. Pests, like weeds, are simply animals where we don’t want them. So our first efforts must involve preventing their entry. A free online book by Stephen Tvedten explains the many actions we can take before resorting to pesticides. This approach, taking housekeeping to a new level, is an example of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
The final step may be to weave a new conservation lifeline, modeled on New Zealand’s rescue of their black robins. We snitch an extra egg from each clutch and a chick from each nest. We raise these and set them up in the collective areas of largely chemical free households. Birds and us – we’re all healthier. We get to know each other better. Leaving behind more of our old frightened ignorant ways, we can finally be -- and we can finally have -- a real friend in Nature.