Lessons from Travels: Australian Crows and Currawongs

by Carl Strang

Birds were my first natural history study as a child, and that interest is renewed most strongly when I visit a new place. My trip to Australia at the end of 2000 took me far from Illinois, but I found that the exotic was mixed with the familiar. One such contrast I found in the crows and currawongs. The island state of Tasmania, the first part of my tour, had one common species in each group. The forest raven, sufficiently like our crows and raven to be familiar, was common along the coast and scarce inland. They were slightly larger than our crows, and had groaning nasal calls. More common inland was the black currawong.

Currawongs were among the most memorable of the Australian birds.

Currawongs were among the most memorable of the Australian birds.

This bird is big and black, with white spots on the wings and tail that make a nice display in flight. The bill is large, and with a distinctive shape unlike other birds in my experience. Its voice is very loud, at once reminiscent of a goose’s call but with a loud, ringing, trumpeting quality. Though in a family separate from the Corvidae, the currawong seemed very crow-like ecologically, which perhaps explains its reciprocal geography with the forest raven. One caught a 2-inch caterpillar or worm delicately in the tip of its beak by reaching into a grass clump, then swallowed it with little manipulation. Another cast a tiny pellet.

I saw two other corvids during the trip, the little crow and the Torresian crow, both on the Australian mainland.

Little crow

Little crow

Again, they seemed very much like our own species in the little time I had to observe them. I noted that the Torresian crows’ nasal voices were reminiscent of our fish crows’. Our planet’s life has a shared evolutionary history, and we cannot get entirely away from life forms that fit with our home experience.

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