A Tale of Willy Wagtails

I don't have a website or even any good photos of the birds we've taken an interest in, but I wanted to tell you about a special little family we had 6 years ago when we lived in Nowra on the south coast of NSW.

We are Tasmanian, but lived in NSW for 32 years (Wollongong, Narrandera, and Nowra), and life has come full circle and we moved back to Hobart in 2001, as our children are here.

In Nowra, two of those delightful, cheeky little birds, Willy Wagtails, built a nest right outside our lounge room window. We watched as it was formed, and even helped by putting some of our Persian cat's fur on a bush nearby. We thought they might not fancy the fur, as it would probably indicate "cat" - but we found they actually lined the nest with it! We watched mother-bird sit on the eggs, and father taking turns, until one day there were four little heads peeking over the top. We used to watch them being fed by both parents and see the mother settle over them at dusk to keep them warm. Then, when ready, we watched as they were taught to fly. Lessons started in the morning and by nightfall, they were flying "in formation" over our roof.

These parents raised three lots of babies in a short space of time. The fourth lot of eggs hatched, and we were set to keep watching. I went shopping on this particular morning, and when I returned, I automatically looked for the little heads above the nest, but they weren't there. Then I saw a kookaburra sitting on a branch across the road and I knew what had happened. The parents were frantic - and my husband and I were as upset as if we had lost our children, too. But the parents went ahead and hatched out another three chicks. The same thing happened, but this time I saw a hawk circling high in the sky, and the nest had been broken. The distress of the two parents was heart-breaking, and I might add, we grieved, too. We didn't realise until later just how much time we spent watching these little birds.

Do you know what those birds did? Because the nest that had been wrecked was obviously visible to predators, they decided to move house. Next door was a huge, thick pine tree, so they painstakingly took every bit of that nest and moved it to the pine tree, and even collected the pieces which were laying on the ground! They recycled the nest! I have never since doubted the intelligence of birds. To call someone a "birdbrain" would be a compliment!

At one stage, while the baby birds were small, a monitor lizard (which must have been six feet long from head to tail) came into our garden (horrid, prehistoric-looking monsters!) and climbed one of the trees in search, I think, of eggs. The tree it climbed was only about 10 feet from the Willy Wagtail's nest. In the meantime, birds of all kinds appeared out of nowhere, including white cockatoos, and they all attacked the lizard. The lizard's tail was being used like a whip, and would have cut off the head of any bird who misjudged, but with precision, the attack continued. In the meantime, I phoned the National Parks and Wildlife and frantically told them a monitor lizard was in our yard and our birds were in danger. I was told that they were NOT "our" birds, and that I should allow the lizard to go about it's business! We tried to chase it away with a garden hoe, but with no success - the birds kept attacking and eventually it went out on a branch which wouldn't support it, the branch bent, and it dropped into our neighbour's place, where it ran into a vacant block at the edge of bushland. What amazed me was that birds which didn't normally associate with each other, all joined forces against the common enemy, and succeeded in getting rid of it. You should have seen that lizard - torn and bleeding from the wounds inflicted by the birds defending their territory.

National Parks and Wildlife can probably accept the rule about "survival of the fittest" - but it's difficult to do so when you become fond of the wonderful birdlife which adopts you! Those Willy Wagtails (otherwise known as "fantailed fly catchers" - not a very pretty name), kept us entertained for months. It's very true that the best things in life are free!

Willy on the lawn

On a trip to Britain, one of the best days we had was spent in Regent's Park, where we fed the squirrels and birds. Even sparrows will eat from your hand, there. One of the most memorable moments of my life was when a robin (redbreast) settled on my hand! How many people can say that? Robins are generally very timid little birds.

Willy wagging his tail.

The lizard.

It was sad enough to read that your mother cockatoo had to have her wing removed, but the loss of the little one, despite your efforts, nearly made me cry! My mother once revived a budgerigar (my parent's pet which used to hop around on the breakfast table and eat crumbs) when he choked on a piece of toast and keeled over on the table. She gave him "mouth to beak" rescusitation! Surprisingly, it worked and he lived for many years after!

I just felt I had to tell you these little incidents, because they're something we will remember all our lives.

Have a happy Xmas,

Eileen Smith
12th December 2006

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