The butchers in question are the Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) and the Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis). These two species, together with the Black Butcherbird (Cracticus quoyi), the Black-backed Butcherbird (Cracticus mentalis) and the Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) belong to the same family as woodswallows and currawongs – Artamidae.
Butcherbirds are generally smaller than Magpies, although the largest, the Black Butcherbird, may approximate Magpie size. All have robust, straight, finely-hooked bills. Butcherbirds catch live prey, mostly insects and lizards, but also largish birds – for example blackbirds and pigeons. Larger catches are often wedged into tree forks or into angles in fences. This process enables the butcherbirds to obtain sufficient purchase to tear victims apart with their hooked beaks. Butcherbirds lack the powerful feet of many birds of prey (falcons for example), hence the use of the wedging technique to hold larger prey ready for the butchery! Forks may also be used as larders or the victims left in place to attract mates. Incidentally, whilst Magpies are acknowledged as catching small birds, one of us (G.N.) has observed, on a single occasion, a Magpie swoop onto, catch and carry away a blackbird! There also have been observations of Pied Butcherbirds hunting in tandem with Little Falcons (Falco longipennis). This would be worth seeing, as the Little Falcon is incredibly fast through the air!
The early explorers seem to have considered the butchery process described above as quite unsavoury, perhaps because other birds of prey often cart their victims off to a far high spot before starting the tearing process and are out of sight, whilst the butcherbirds fork-wedging of larger birds may perhaps more frequently be seen at a lower level. In addition Butcherbirds can easily become tame in camp-sites, gardens, parks and regularly become “town birds”, and are therefore more likely to do their butchery closer to humans.
Charles Sturt, during his second journey to the interior in 1844, includes in his description of various birds of the interior a mention of the “cracticus destructor, an ugly bird with dull feathers that could imitate any sound it heard” (Coopers Creek” – Alan Moorehead – 1963 chapter 2, page 18). The birds he describes could have been Grey and/or Pied Butcherbirds, but are more likely to have been the latter. It is a little hard to understand the “ugly” and “dull” bit, unless he thought black and white to be dull or he saw lots of young birds, which retain their duller and less clear-cut immature plumage for longish periods. Magpies are known to imitate sounds, including human voices, so it is not surprising that butcherbirds also seem to have that ability.
The Black and Black-backed butcherbirds’ ranges are limited to the far north areas of Australia. From a local perspective, the Grey and Pied Butcherbirds are of greatest interest, with the former’s range including much of South Australia. The Pied Butcherbird’s South Australian range is limited to the extreme north-west of the State, and, fortunately for us, to the area along the River Murray except, generally, from the latter’s most southerly course. For example, the photograph of a Pied Butcherbird included in this article was taken on a recent NHSSA trip to Ngaut Ngaut Hertitage site adjacent to Nildottie.
THE “BEAUTIES” BIT
All butcherbirds are known for their fine songs, with the Pied Butcherbird generally acknowledged as being one of the finest songsters in Australia. Broadly speaking, butcherbird songs could be described as variations on the flute-like, “carolling” songs of Australian Magpies. It is an unfortunate fact that familiarity often subconsciously affects our awareness and the magical sounds of magpies can become just “background”! Hear a Grey Butcherbird and you’ll easily recognise that the song is a variation on that of the Magpie. Hear a Pied Butcherbird in full song and you’ll never forget it!
Grey Butcherbirds are resident on Moorunde and are more often heard than seen. If you think you hear a Magpie, particularly in wooded areas, stop for a moment and listen again. If the song is “not quite right” for a Magpie and sounds richer and more even more melodious, then you may have heard a Grey Butcherbird. If you get a sighting, even if you haven’t got binoculars at the ready, you should be able to make the identification – about two thirds of the size of a magpie and more stream-lined than the latter (i.e. not as round!), the mature male Grey Butcherbird is a pretty handsome fellow, with black crown and cheeks and a partial whitish neck collar and whitish throat contrasting with a grey (sometimes silvery) back. Underparts are off-whitish, and the tail is black with a white tip. Wings mostly black. The bill is finely hooked and grey-blue with a black tip. The female is a little duller in colour.
To date, no Pied Butcherbird has been identified on Moorunde, but it is entirely possible that we could see one, bearing in mind the relatively close proximity of the Murray River. Hear a song that sets you back on your heels and is superior to just about anything that you’ve heard from a bird and it just could be a Pied Butcherbird. Generally friendlier than the Grey, the Pied may linger longer and you may be able to get a good look! A little larger than the Grey, the Pied is just that, entirely black and white, both male and female. Easily distinguished by its entirely black hood, which extends well down the upper-breast, complete broad white collar, white underparts, black rather than grey back, wings black with white marks. The tail is black with white tips, bill similar colours to the Grey.
Bestiality, like beauty, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. Whilst your common or garden 19th Century explorer may have thought that butcherbirds’ eating arrangements are a bit on the nose, we all have to eat, and, after all, we humans just get human butchers to do the same things for us! On the balance of evidence, we vote for BEAUTIES – and those wonderful songs should seal the verdict!
Graham Nye and “Whistling Jack” Endersby.