This post parallels my recent Extended Honeyeater family essay and is prompted by the same holiday experiences: visiting Canberra and Victoria before Christmas I saw birds which don’t live around Townsville and wanted to fit them in to my existing knowledge.
It turned out that the birds I was curious about are not all members of the same taxonomic family but all belong to three families within the superfamily Corvoidea, i.e.,
- Corvidae: crows, ravens (and jays, which don’t occur in Australia)
- Artamidae: woodswallows, butcherbirds, currawongs and Australian magpie
- Corcoracidae: white-winged chough and apostlebird
The links in that little list will take you to the respective family pages on Birdway and clicking on them in turn shows graphically that all three families put together contain fewer species than the single Honeyeater family.
We have two native crows and three ravens. They are all glossy black birds of similar sizes, so they are very difficult to tell apart.
Location is one clue. Here in Townsville we have the Torresian Crow (Corvus orru) and the Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides), and we may see the Little Crow (Corvus bennetti) if we drive over the Dividing Range and far enough inland. In Victoria and southern NSW, however, both Little and Australian Ravens are widespread and the Forest Raven is common within its limited range, but there are no crows.
The Australian Raven has much more prominent throat hackles than any of our crows and they should be obvious in my close-up, so this must be a Torresian Crow. My Friendly Local Expert suggests that, “at a distance, the two species are best separated by their calls. The Raven has a wailing descending call, while the Torresian has a characteristic, persistent, staccato ark-ark-ark… call which can be irritating. It sometimes has a wailing call, too, but the ark-ark… call is common.”
The other two corvids on Birdway’s page, the House Crow and Eurasian Magpie, are Asian birds which have been seen here but have not naturalised. This means we only have one magpie, the Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) which got its common name from the Eurasian Magpie but is not closely related to it: the Aussie is closer to currawongs and butcherbirds but the foreigner is closer to crows and ravens.
Currawongs are the most crow-like of the Artamidae, being just as big and nearly as black. The Pied Currawong, Strepera graculina, is black with white flashes in wing, undertail and tail-tip, all more apparent in flight. It’s the species we have here and its range extends in a broad swathe all the way down the coast to Western Victoria.
The Grey Currawong (S. versicolor), whose range extends from about Sydney across to WA, and the Black Currawong, restricted to Tasmania, are quite similar to the Pied. If in doubt, look at their eyes (adult crows and ravens have white eyes but currawongs have yellow eyes) or listen to their voices (currawongs are more melodious than crows).
Finally, the bird which really triggered this exploration. I was having a thoroughly enjoyable day in Canberra’s Botanic Gardens until a niggling question intruded: just what was that other black bird? Solid black (or was that a flash of white in the wings as it flew off?), smallish for a crow or currawong but big for anything else, red-eyed, sociable and active on the ground? It didn’t ruin my day, of course – a new critter is always interesting – but it was a puzzle.
A bit of research identified it as the White-winged (really?) Chough, Corcorax melanorhamphos. On the ground, the finer beak and the red eyes distinguish it from crows and currawongs; in flight, currawongs have white in wings and tail, choughs have white only in the wings, and crows and ravens have no white at all.
The only other species in the Chough’s family is the Apostlebird, smaller and browner. Neither of them is common around Townsville but we’re not far from the edge of their ranges.