The Call of the Dry Season: Tooth-billed Bowerbirds

Once the rain stops, the birds get busy

Tooth-billed Bowerbird (as Toothed-billed Bower-bird from Gould’s ‘The Birds of New Guinea and the adjacent Papuan Islands including many new species recently discovered in Australia’). Public Domain.

Well, there you have it. Predicting the end of the wet season is like hanging out the laundry or washing the car.

The wet season is over, I said.

Next minute…

More than 150 mm (6 in) of rain has fallen since I made my bold statement about a fortnight ago, most of it coming down in the past two days. None of this is unusual. Not the rainfall, and certainly not my emphatic statements being immediately contradicted by reality.

Still, the Pacific Koels and Channel-billed Cuckoos have left, the Sulphur-crested cockatoos and White-headed Pigeons have moved in, and the Golden Pendas are in flower — although they are looking a little battered by the rain. Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes and Lewin’s Honeyeaters are eating the mulberries as soon as they ripen. Back in the rainforest, I’d be competing with Spotted Catbirds for fruit on the Millaa Millaa Vine (). The catbirds would usually win. Being able to fly is a definite advantage when dealing with plants that scramble into the canopy.

Even if the rain continues — and it will for a while — things are about change. And this is the time I wish I were back in the rainforest.

Sarus Cranes will be arriving soon, flying in from Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf of Carpentaria to spend winter on the Atherton Tablelands. Not long after, Tooth-billed Bowerbirds will begin to construct their courts. The male clears a patch of rainforest floor, usually around the base of a tree, and decorates it with freshly cut or fallen leaves. His display might not be as elaborate as those of other bowerbirds, but he is every bit as fastidious in constructing it. Leaves are of a preferred species and are laid in a calculated arrangement. Bollygum and native ginger are often used because the underside of the leaf is paler than the top. When placed on the rainforest litter, they stand out.

Male Tooth-billed Bowerbird selecting a native ginger leaf to take back to his court, Atherton Tablelands. © Bronwen Scott

The males perch above their stages and sing. And how they sing! They spend hours each day creating increasingly elaborate songs that incorporate elements of other bird calls and those of cicadas too. Their songs are rich and resonant…and are interspersed with raspberries and hisses as if a bird is both performer heckler. Or maybe it’s a commentary on the performances of neighbouring males.

Even though they are sometimes described as drab or dull in comparison to other bowerbirds, I love them. It’s true that the plumage is not as extravagant as the shining blue of the Satin Bowerbird or the gold and black of the Regent, and males lack the fancy pink nuchal crest of dry country species. It’s not even as colourful as that of the catbirds, a group that really can’t be arsed with elegant displays or complicated songs. But they do have fluffy muttonchops on either side of that sturdy black beak, and a soft, streaked pattern on the front that offsets the even brown of back and wings. Not that they parade around in the open. Sometimes they come to bird baths as long as there is cover, and they will feed on rainforest fruit at the forest edge, including Millaa Millaa Vines. But most of the time, they perch above their carefully curated patch of leaves and sing.

And there is no better sound to form a backdrop to your day. You will only hear it if you are in the upland rainforest. I will visit, but I doubt I will have the opportunity to live among the tall trees again.

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland.

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