Extended Honeyeater family

What do you think of when you think of an extended family? Cousin Julie, Uncle John, Nanna and the rest? Or a group of related birds or mammals which is broader than a species but narrow enough to be a natural grouping?

Christmas is fresh in my mind as I write, as it may be in yours, but here I’m concerned with the taxonomic extended family, not the rellies. In particular, I have been thinking about  honeyeaters and their next-nearest kin, Continue reading “Extended Honeyeater family”

Crows, Currawongs and Choughs

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 turns out that currawongs, magpies, crows and choughs are not all members of the same taxonomic family but are next-nearest kin, all being members of the superfamily Corvoidea comprising three families:

  • 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.

Corvidae

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 perhaps the Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides), and if we drive West over the Dividing Range we may see the Little Crow (Corvus bennetti). 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.

Torresian Crow (Corvus orru)
Torresian Crow, Pallarenda NQ

I’m reasonably sure that my crows here are not ravens because the Australian Raven has much more prominent throat hackles than any of our crows and they should be obvious in my close-up.

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

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.

Pied Currawong
Pied Currawong, Canberra Botanic Gardens
Pied Currawong
Pied Currawong, Hervey’s Range NQ, showing white plumage more clearly

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 (crows and ravens have white eyes but currawongs have yellow eyes) or listen to their voices (currawongs are more melodious than crows).

The Chough

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.

White-winged Chough, Corcorax melanorhamphos
White-winged Chough, Canberra Botanic Gardens

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.

Torresian Crow (Corvus orru)
Crow in pursuit of a Spur-winged Plover, Pallarenda. No white at all!