Dollarbird

First Antipodean Nature Note: A pair of Dollarbirds (Eurystomus orientalis) nested next door in a big Ironbark. For about a month the cackling noise of the parent birds bringing-in insects for what I thought were two noisy babies was constant. This morning, after seeing a big Black Snake in the garden, I noticed a young Dollarbird on the ground near the nesting tree. Only one parent bird was keeping an eye on it. I figured that on the ground this young bird would not last long in a location full of predators (snakes, goannas, hawks, eagles, kookaburras). I took its photo and put it under cover about two metres up in a tee tree. I hope for a happy ending to this story …………..

Second Antipodean Nature Note: The young Dollarbird did not make it in life. It had to be euthanised by a professional bird carer as there was no chance that its wing could be repaired at shattered shoulder bones. It would never fly and if you have seen a Dollarbird in flight, you would know what an aerialist it is. They must fly … it is their essence. They also must migrate … March 1 pulls them to the North and tropical insect feasts. So sad, because it was otherwise strong and healthy after I had fed it for a week on live cicadas from our property. They do not need water as insects like cicadas have enough moisture in them for their birdy needs.

Feeding the fledgling involved stalking cicadas that were resting on the side of tree trunks up to about three metres in height off the ground. My method of catching was to stun them with a plastic rake so that they would fall to the ground (ala Leunig’s cartoon character trying to catch his own head with a butterfly net). I would then gather them and put them in an enclosed box with the little bird. An hour or so later and they would all be gone!

I have learnt much about Dollarbirds during my short period of caring for the life of this bird. For a start, the fall from the nest on first flight is often perilous and they nest up to 20 metres above ground in a tree hollow. Unless they get enough updraft into the new wings they often crash to the ground and get injured. The bird-carer gets many each summer that have smashed bodies that cannot be repaired.

I wondered why this happens and my conclusion was … colonisation!! Before European land clearing and hard-hooved animals there would have been soft soil and an understory of thick grass under nesting trees, hence a cushioning of any crash. Now, the little ones hit hard, unforgiving, mooed and mowed ground and many do not recover.

I also learnt that the parent birds are totally dedicated to the care of their young. Before I picked up the little one from the ground the parents would fly in, land next to it, and drop a cicada for it to eat. That is no simple task because Dollarbirds are hopeless on the ground. They must perch on thick branches or wires when resting as their feet and toes seem rather rudimentary. They continued to visit the baby and chatter to it even when I had it in a cage for its own protection. Both parents would dive-bomb me in acts of continued protection for their fledgling.

The young bird also manifested a fearless wildness. Despite sporting big, kind eyes, it would attack me and use its beak to try and put me into retreat. No amount of love or cicadas was going to tame that bird. There is only one element to the story that has a happy ending. The parents raised two young and the healthy surviving sibling is still in the area demanding to be fed by its parents. It sits high in the tree tops begging and its obliging parents soar into the air, catch an insect on the wing, then feed it to the beggar. It flies very well and will soon be able to catch dragonflies on the wing for itself. I hope the family remain until their March migration deadline when I will be pleased to not hear the sound of a Dollarbird cackle for another year.

To hold a Dollarbird in your hands is a rare privilege in life. To feed it and give it a chance to live was also special. To be pecked by a wild thing is a treat. My encounter has taught me that survival is not simply a matter of chance. It is not just the taking of a wrong turn, it is the environmental history of the country where the land as it is, has diverged from the land as it ought to be. I buried the little Dollarbird deep into the ground at Wallaby Farm.