All activities at Casuarina Library (17 Bradshaw Terrace, Casuarina NT) unless otherwise stated.

BIRDS – and other things! Print E-mail
Monday, 25 July 2016 22:56

Part Forty - seven: Owl Assortment

Continuing with last month’s theme, I thought I would share this earlier life - experience with you. Just prior to retirement, I had a particularly bad down - time and a friend gave me a small two - inch high carved stone owl to cheer me up. Its facial expression clearly said ‘BLAH to all of you’, and I tr easure d the little object. At the time it helped me over the hump but, unfortunately, friends and family came to the (unfounded) assumption that I liked al l inanimate owl trinkets and knick - knacks. They showered me with owl items for breakfast, lunch, birthdays, whatever and whenever until I had to say ‘Thank you, but STOP! ENOUGH! NO MORE, PLEASE!’

Thankfully they got the message and eventually the Salvos r eceived a sizeable collection of owls in all shapes and sizes and made from many different materials. I sincerely hope that they all found good homes.

However, I have always had a soft spot for real - life owls, both for their rather comical features and fo r their habits and usefulness to mankind. Although they seem to be notorious and ruthless predators of our wildlife, they do play their part in keeping introduced vermin under control. And it is this attribute which brings me to the Barn Owl which inhabits nearly every country below the equator, most of the USA and a few European countries.

The reason for its large worldwide distribution is the owls’ innate survival flexibility: their nesting requirements are adaptable; their food requirements can be alte red along with habitat; and the bird’s capacity to co - exist in the human environment leads to breeding success. Our local owl is the Eastern Barn Owl which is prevalent over most of Australia. This species breeds prolifically when there is an upsurge (plag ue) in mouse production.

These owls have a hoarse, high - pitched, scary, maniacal screech to advertise their existence. In fact its alternative name is the Screech Owl! Its heart - shaped face , dominated by fairly large eyes with excellent low - light vision, is we ll - known to all of us. But these big, one - directional eyes take up space usually reserved for muscles to actually move them. So, to make up for this, owls can rotate their whole head by 180 ̊ to each side without moving their body.

This gives them all - round vision and the disc - like face is designed to channel sound to each ear with minimal delay, thus allowing owls to to pinpoint their prey even in complete darkness. The owls’ habit of sitting quite still, eyes wide open, silently fixating on an object has without doubt led to its legendary status as a repository of knowledge and wisdom. In reality they are no smarter than most birds, and, when it comes to problem solving, they are out - classed by parrots and crows.

It is just that we find the heart - shap ed face so endearing. By day the Barn Owl rests high in the trees, in caves or in barns and, when in flight, it gives the impression of being head - heavy. Not often seen but it is still heard at night in the Territory.

And now for the n ext two night birds: the Tawny F rogmouth and the Nightjar.

Also known as the Owlet - Nightjar or Moth Owl, the Nightjar is not related to the owl family even though it looks rather like a miniature owl . With pinkish - coloured feet , cat - like whiskers, and a slight tracery of th e trademark owl spectacles , the ‘Moth Owl’ and the more common spotted Nightjar are, never the less, a different species . Like the other nocturnal fliers, it has very soft feathers enabling ultra - quiet flight when necessary, as they glide silently down to scoop up their victims. The name ‘Nightjar’ was bestowed on them because they ‘jar’ the night with their strident high - pitched calls, disturbing the nocturnal silence along with other noisy owls, curlews and bush hens. The Nightjars mainly nest on or clos e to the ground, or maybe in hollow logs, even though they have difficulty walking – it is more like the shuffle of an inebriated human!

And so we come to the Tawny Frogmouth also found throughout Australia and also not related to owls. Now I must admit t hey are not the prettiest bird on the planet, but its very grotesqueness and bizarre behaviour is fascinating.

During daylight hours, the Frogmouth delights in masquerading as just another dead - tree branch but, come night - time, it reinvents itself as o ur BFF * bec ause of its copious appetite for crickets and cockroaches.

Assisting in keeping these nasties away from our premises can only be a good deed – don’t you agree? It is usually only in the dark hours that the Frogmouths very emphatically proclaim their presence by emitting a low - pitched booming call reminiscent of throbbing African tom - toms.

Unlike owls and nightjars, Tawny Frogmouths do not ‘feed on the wing’ but instead scuffle through leaf litter for their delectables. However, along with the Nightjar, the Frogmouth has an unfortunate inclination to seek out roadkill during its nocturnal food - gathering expeditions, often playing the ‘chicken game’ with speeding traffic . Sadly they often become tasty morsels for others of their ilk.

I have mem ories (middle/late 1960s) of driving south on leave, departing D arwin in the early hours to do the twelve - hour dash to the Alice or maybe Camooweal. Having three toddlers on those trips was bad enough, but one of the worst times was when ghostly apparition s would suddenly rise up just in front of the car lights in a last - minute dash to safety. Alas, all too often it was too late and a loud SPLAT! THUMP! would be heard from under the car or caravan indicating that ‘another one bit the dust’!

Seemingly oblivious to approaching headlights or noisy car engines while consuming previously squished ‘animal soup’, the Nightjars and Frogmouths courted annihilation on the Stuart Highway. It was very distressing for the youngsters – the constant thud, thud, thud kept them awake! Just joking! But, yes, this unavoidable animal carnage really did upset all of us. Especially when our first appointment when reaching ‘civilisation’ would be to get a car - wash – not just to remove dust and/or mud but also feathers and squish!

See you all next month.

Gayle Carroll