Throughout southwestern Australia, and particularly in cities, the terror of small birds is not the hawk but the grey butcherbird ( Cracticus torquatus). This may seem surprising when you first see one - they are quite small birds, about 30cm long including tail, with soft grey, black and white feathers. The head, face, back and tail are black, with a white ring around the neck and a white throat fading to soft grey on the belly. The beak is large and pointed, white near the face and black at the tip. The eyes are unusually large and black, and the species has the body and stance of a perching bird like a honeyeater. They certainly lack the predatory look of the hawks and falcons, or even the larger magpies and currawongs. Their loud, clear, very musical calls make them seem even less threatening. Adult pairs sing long duets together.
Nesting pairs will occupy a territory of forest (or suburb of quiet tree-lined streets) for life. They rear their young carefully for several months, teaching them how to hunt, and feeding them most of their kills. They are also very tame when accepting offerings of meat from people - we have a resident family of six in our garden that have a great fondness for hot pancetta. The babies are even cuter than the adults - well after fledging they are still very fluffy, with the same patterning as the adults but in dark brown and beige instead of black and grey, and they have the same endearingly enormous eyes.
Despite all their loyalty
, musical talent
, family values
, though, they are viciously efficient hunter
s. Should a fluffy little baby butcherbird, sitting staring around with an expression of wide-eyed innocence
, see a sparrow
, it will suddenly transform. It leans forward on its perch, streamlined, wings half raised, head tracking the movement of the smaller bird. If it gets its trajectory right it will leap and hit its prey on the back of the head. Usually they eat small birds like sparrows and finches
, but I have watched an adult pair hunting a mynah bird slightly larger than themselves on a lawn
. One harrassed it from the front, the other struck from behind.
Unlike hawks and so on, butcher birds have small and dainty legs and feet, and are unable to use them to hold prey down while they tear it up. Instead, they carry it to a broken twig on a tree, on which they spike it like a butcher hanging a carcass on a hook to cut it up - hence their name. However improbable this may sound after the description of their feeding habits, though, they are good to have around. I certainly feel a great degree of affection for any native Australian species that's managing to take back inner city habitat from European sparrows and Indian mynahs, even if it is by force.