Flights of fancy

Flights of fancy

As a photographer, one of the most helpful gadgets I ever designed for my local welding man to bring to fruition was a pipe with a clamp at one end and lateral hole at the other.   

This allowed me to mount my studio lights in the most difficult and unlikely places. So, what’s this got to do with birds you might ask?   

Well, having the right tools for the job not only tends to save one’s sanity but in the case of the rufus heron illustrated, on a rare visit to a North Melbourne pond, it ensures its very survival. A night heron uses that dagger to skewer and secure its prey of frogs, yabbies, fish and any invertebrate hiding in the mud along the reedy shores. Similar to, but rather more shy than egrets and storks, herons use a number of different hunting techniques. Often, they employ patient ambush, staying as perfectly still as the concrete versions sprinkled around the suburban lawns of Melbourne, until the right tidbit walks into the frame.   Sometimes they move quietly and hesitantly, patiently stalking their lunch, but they can also be downright ruthless, charging in with no prisoners taken. At times they use strange leg and wing movements to confuse their prey while some species walk with their wings out to produce shade and reduce the glare as they hunt in their own shadow. On their more energetic days they behave rather like cormorants, employing the hover and dive approach.   Whichever technique they use, the finishing touch is always provided by that perfectly designed stiletto-like bill.


Caption: Kookaburra.


A wonderful contrast is the claw-like beak parrots use to crack open the seeds and nuts they so readily enjoy. The sight of a cocky or parrot, like some ravenous toddler clutching its crust in chubby fingers and chewing mesmerically is one of nature’s delights. With more space we could discuss in detail the destructive habits of galahs and cockatoos which often use their bills to destroy whole houses and to gnaw out hollows in trees to construct homes of their own. This action is actually vital for the bird’s survival, controlling the length of the beak, otherwise it would continue to grow and become unmanageable.

We could also mention spoonbills, spinebills, wee-bills and those frenetic pneumatic-like woodpeckers which must possess necks of iron the way they hammer out their feeding holes in tree trunks. We will also leave for another time the constantly probing beak of the magpie which seems to have a sense of its own, rarely failing to produce a wriggling morsel from just a few thrusting jabs into any soft green lawn.


Caption: Crimson Rosella Head.


We may make mention of the weapon all snakes and lizards fear – that beak of the happiest of bush-dwellers, the kookaburra, its cast iron appearance with slight hook at the end familiar to us all. And what of that bulging bulbous bill of the waddling pelican which as any child knows holds more than its belly can? A marvellous piece of equipment indeed.

Yes, the subject is almost limitless, and we haven’t even touched on the other end of birds – their feet. Have you noticed that some birds have three toes pointing forward and one backwards? This is a great aid to their perching ability and not surprisingly these birds are known as “perching birds” (or “songbirds”, and as “passerines” to the boffins). The rest of our avian friends are known as “non-passerines”, usually with two toes facing in each direction.   

We’ve all watched and marvelled at the way swans appear to be cruising without any effort as they glide majestically across our ponds and lakes, but below the surface there are two webbed feet going like the clappers to produce that serene motion. Ideal too for making their way across muddy marshlands, these webbed feet act like snowshoes preventing the owner sinking into the ooze.   


Caption: Pelican.


At the other end of the scale are the talons of the wedge-tailed eagle, probably our most ubiquitous bird. Able to snatch and carry off not only field mice and rabbits, but the occasional lamb, this feat is aided by equally powerful wings. 

And speaking of wings, we haven’t touched on the unique design of feathers which make birds so unique. Maybe next time. 

‘Til then, must fly. Cheers. •


Main photo caption: Night heron.

Photo: Howard Birnstihl.

John Buncle

John Buncle

February 14th, 2024 - Felicity Jack
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