My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XIX

Intelligent Birds


Among those birds of North Queensland jungles which have marked individualistic characters is that known as the koel cuckoo, which the blacks of some localities have named “calloo-calloo”— a mimetic term imitative of the most frequent notes of the bird. The male is lustrous black, the female mottled brown, and during most parts of the year both are extremely shy, though noisy enough in accustomed and quiet haunts. The principal note of the male is loud, ringing, and most pleasant, but its vocabulary is fairly extensive. Sometimes it yelps loud and long like a puppy complaining of a smart whipping, sometimes in the gloom of the evening it moans and wails pitifully like an evil thing tortured mentally and physically, sometimes it announces the detection of unwelcome intruders upon its haunts with a blending of purr and hiss.

When “calloo-calloo” comes to the islands, resident blacks look to the flowering of the bean-tree, for the events are coincident; while as they understand all its vocal inflections an important secret is often revealed to them by noisy exclamations. Living in flowerland among the tops of the trees, the bird is favourably located for the discovery of snakes, but being strong and lusty there is reason to believe that the presence of slim green and grey arboreal species is ignored. The important office that it holds in the domestic economy of the blacks is in the detection of carpet snakes, which to them form an ever welcome article of diet. Thus when “calloo-calloo” shouts “snake” in excited, chattering phrases they run off in the hope of being able to find the game, and generally one suffices to rid the bird of a deceitful and implacable enemy and to provide the camp with a substantial meal.

A few months ago a friend who owns a fruitful estate fronting one of the rivers of the mainland, who was not aware of the aptitude of the bird, was working with his blacks when “calloo-calloo” gave voice. “That’s one!” exclaimed Dilly Boy, as he rushed into a thick patch of jungle; “he bin lookout snake!” The boss, concluding that Dilly Boy had merely invented a plausible excuse for a spell, smiled to himself when he came back in half an hour wearing an air of philosophic disappointment. “That fella snake along a tree; bin lookout; too much leep [leaf]. That calloo-calloo, him sing out proper. Him no more humbug!”

Huge carpet snakes frequently coil themselves so carefully among parasitic ferns and orchids in the trees that it is impossible to detect them from below. A couple of days after work was proceeding in the same locality when a snake, 12 feet long, was found and killed, but the fact was then not accepted as proof of the theory of the blacks. In the course of a few days the bird again proclaimed “snake,” and all the blacks hastened to the spot to set about a systematic search. Applying the detective principle of isolation to various parts of the tree in which by general consent (corroborating the evidence of the bird) the snake was concluded to be, the blacks at last decided that the only possible place of concealment was a mass of elk’s-horn fern encircling the trunk about 40 feet from the ground. One of them thereupon climbed the tree, and soon a carpet snake, 14 feet 6 inches long and 12 inches in girth, was writhing on the ground. It is well known that these snakes are frequently found in pairs, and no doubt the “calloo-calloo” had signified the presence of the mate on the occasion of the first alarm.

Other instances of the shrewdness of the bird and its care for the wellbeing of the order generally by detecting and proclaiming the presence of the universal enemy might be cited. One authority asserts that the bird and the snake are nearly always found together, and seems to imply that a friendship exists between them, for the bird is referred to as a “messmate” of the snake. “The bird,” he writes, “flies over the snake with a ‘clucky’ chirp, and whenever the natives hear it in the dense scrubs they sneak in to discover the reptile, which is caught by being grabbed at the back of the head.”

In heralding the flower of the bean-tree, and thus awakening thoughts of the beans, and in indicating snakes (both desirable and indeed essential articles of food), the “calloo-calloo” performs such valuable service that it is highly commended. Those who are familiar with the unreflective omnivority of the blacks and their indelicate appetites generally, may with difficulty credit the fact that in those districts in which the bird is recognised as a trustworthy guide it is honoured, and under no circumstances will they kill it. Of course, the blacks of North Queensland in native worth have not much art in the killing of birds, but in every case “calloo-calloo” is tabu.

One instance may be quoted. A great outcry was heard on the edge of the jungle, and upon investigation a grey falcon and a “calloo-calloo” were found in such preoccupied “holts” that both were captured. Here was an opportunity for a meal. The birds were parted, and the falcon given over to the custody of a gin for execution, while the “calloo-calloo,” which was dazed, was petted and revived until it at last flew away with a glad call, the blacks assuring a witness, “B’mbi that fella look out snake belong me fella!”


A somewhat too rigorous critic of the antics of birds has expressed the opinion that playfulness is unknown among them, that their occasional friskiness is not an exhibition of lightness of heart, but merely a martial exercise. The corroboree of native companions (ANTIGONE AUSTRALASIANA) may certainly be the practice of a defensive manoeuvre, though it has the appearance of a graceful dance. A partially disabled bird will pirouette on tiptoes and flap its wings wildly in the face of its foe, and it is reasonable to imagine that the great birds in community would keep themselves well trained in their particular methods of self-defence.

A flock of dotterels bobbing, bowing, skipping, and shouldering one another may be merely practising some evolution with serious intent, though it is far more natural to conclude that the frail little birds are in holiday humour. For all their exercises, they have but one resort in the presence of a superior foe or an alert single enemy, and that is in hasty and inconsiderate flight.

From my own experience may be drawn proof of the contention that birds do practise defensive and offensive tactics, and also that they have their moments of unreflecting play.

The cassowary (CASUARIUS AUSTRALIS) is a skilful fighter. It hits out with such force and precision that a weaponless man who stands before the bird when it is angry and vicious is ridiculously overmatched. The great bird is so quick that you do not realise that it has got its blow in first until you see the blood flow. It strikes with its middle toe, and that toe is a lance, keen if not bright. How does the regal bird of the jungles of North Queensland acquire this lightning-like stroke? The answer is, by constant and intelligent practice while young. A year or two ago I had frequent opportunities for observing a pair of young cassowaries patiently, yet playfully, performing martial exercises. They were about the size of a full grown bustard (say, 28 lb. weight); but if their bulk had been in ratio to their lightheartedness and playfulness, they would have loomed large as bullocks.

Their favourite spot was round and about a stout post about three feet high, the ground encircling which had been beaten down by constant use to polished smoothness. That the ruling passion of the young birds during their idle hours was determination to acquire skill and alertness there can be no doubt. Invariably the game began in a particular way. One of the pair striding round the post — apparently oblivious of its existence — would lurch against it as a man inspired with rum might treat a lamp-post intent on getting in his way. Leering at the post for a second, the bird would march round again to shoulder it roughly a second time. Then a queer look of simulated petulance and indignation would spread over its features, and, taking in its measure, the bird would lash out at the post with grim earnestness. A cyclonic attack ensued. With many feints and huddling up of its neck, and dodges, and ducks, and lateral movements of the head quick as thought, the post was chastised for its insolence and stolid stupidity. It seemed to be hit in several places at one and the same moment. Its features bore ever increasing scores and furrows, for it was used for hours every day as a punching-ball.

When one bird grew tired the other imitated most laughably the antics of its brother, first ignoring the presence of the post, and then, having lurched dreamily against it, assaulting it with unrestrained fury. Play and significant offensive tactics were undoubtedly blended in the pastimes of the cassowary.

Before the boldest of these birds grew to maturity it became such an expert boxer and so pugnacious and truculent that it was declared unfit to be at large, and as the State offered no secure asylum the death penalty was pronounced and duly carried into effect. By good luck I happened along before all the roast leg had been disposed of, and in spite of testimony to the contrary have pleasure in declaring that, notwithstanding the heroic training to which the youthful bird had subjected itself, the flesh was as tender and as gamey as that of a young plain turkey.

The other case in point may be briefly cited. While yet young there came into our possession a magpie (GYMNORHINA TIBICEN), to which as soon as it was fit for responsibilities full liberty was cheerfully granted. Breakfast, several tiffens, lunches, and afternoon snacks, and a full evening’s dinner was provided. The dish of scraps was always available. At will the pet flew in and out of the kitchen, and if by chance food was not spread out at the accustomed place it protested loudly, and always effectively. Although a large quantity of food was self-earned, there was always a substantial meal in reserve.

The bird spent many wayward hours endeavouring to sing. No cultured relative was present to teach the notes of its kind, so that in default it learned the complete vocabulary of the domestic poultry, besides the more familiar calls and exclamations of its mistress, the varied barks of two dogs, the shrieks of many cockatoos, the gabble of scrub fowls.

The bird also began to play in semi-human style, performing marvellous acrobatic feats on the clothes-line, and lying on its back juggling with a twig as some “artists” do with a barrel in the circus. A white-eared flycatcher took up its abode near the house, and the magpie, after a decent lapse of time, admitted the stranger to its companionship. The wild, larderless bird, however, had little time to play. All its wit and energies were devoted to the serious business of life. It knew none of the games that the magpie invented save one, and that was a kind of aerial “peep-bo” to which the brainier bird lured it by means of a prize.

The magpie found a moth, big of abdomen, fat, and brown, a tempting morsel to any insectivorous bird. Envious of the dainty, the wagtail fluttered and skipped about the magpie with cheerful chatter; but the fluttering moth, daintily held by the extremity of its body, was alternately presented and denied. They danced about a bush, the magpie tantalisingly holding the moth for acceptance and hopping off as the wagtail was about to snatch it. To the tame bird, fortified by knowledge that its meals were provided, it was all fun. To the hungry wild one the moth dangled temptingly before it and whipped disappointingly away was a meal almost to be fought for. It was a game equally sincere but of varied interest. The one assumed a whimsical air, chuckling in encouraging tones; the other took it all in earnest.

At last, unable to restrain an exclamation of delight, the magpie unwarily slackened its hold, and the moth fluttered off to be snapped up on the instant by the wild bird and gulped without ceremony. After this the game was frequently played, but the magpie had invariably to make it worth the while of the wagtail by offering a prize in the shape of some tit-bit.

Do not these cases support the theories that birds sharpen their faculties by the exercise of defensive and offensive tactics, and also that they do indulge in irresponsible play?


If one begins to reflect upon the mental attributes of inferior animals, how aptly is evidence in support of a favourite theory presented? Are the actions of birds due to automatic impulses or hereditary traits? Is instinct merely “lapsed intelligence,” or do birds actually reflect? Are they capable of applying the results of habit and observations in respect of one set of circumstances to other and different conditions? John Burroughs expresses the opinion that birds have perceptions, but not conceptions; that they recognise a certain fact, but are incapable of applying the fact to another case. I am almost convinced that some birds are capable of logical actions under circumstances absolutely new to them, and as a bright and shining affirmation quote “Baal Burra.”

Beautiful in appearance, for it was what is generally known as a blue mountain parrot (red-collared lorikeet), its cleverness and affectionate nature were far more engaging than all the gay feathers. It came as the gift of a human derelict, who knew how to gain the confidence of dumb creatures, though society made of him an Ishmaelite. Vivacious, noisy, loving the nectar of flowers and the juices of fruits, Baal Burra was phenomenal in many winsome ways, but in a spirit of rare self denial I refrain from the pleasure of chronicling some of them in order to give place to instance and proof of the reasoning powers of an astonishingly high order.

Are apologies to be offered, too, for the homeliness of the example — its unrelieved domesticity? I must begin at the very beginning lest some necessary point be lost, and the beginning is porridge! A small portion was invariably left for Baal Burra. On the morning of this strange history a miniature lagoon, irregular in shape, of porridge and milk had settled in the very centre of the dry desert of plate. In response to customary summons to breakfast, Baal Burra skipped along the veranda. It was a daily incident, and no one took particular notice until unusual exclamations on the part of the bird denoted something extraordinary. By circumnavigating the plate and at the same time stretching its neck to the utmost it had contrived to convert the shapeless lagoon into a perfectly symmetrical pond just out of the reach of the stubby tongue. Hence the scolding. Three witnesses — each ardently on the side of the bird — watched intently. Decently mannered, it refused to clamber on to the edge of the plate, for it was ever averse from defilement of food. The tit-bit was just beyond avaricious exertions — just at that tantalising distance and just so irresistibly desirable as might be directly stimulative of original enterprise towards acquirement.

The chatter and abuse continued for a couple of minutes. Then the bird stood still while seeming to reflect, with wise head askew after the manner of other thinkers. Hurrying, to its playthings — which happened to be at the far end of the veranda — it selected a matchbox, dragged it clatteringly along, ranged it precisely close to the plate, mounted it, and from the extra elevation sipped the last drop with a chuckle of content. That the bird on deliberation conceived the scheme for over-reaching the coveted food I have not the slightest doubt.

Baal Burra bestowed frank friendship on a fat, good-humoured, yellow cat, fond of luxury and ease during the day, a “rake-helly” prowler at night. Into Sultan’s fur Baal Burra would burrow, not without occasional result, if the upbraiding tongue was to be believed. Baal Burra would fill its lower mandible with water from a drinking dish and tip it neatly into the cat’s ear, and scream with delight as Sultan shook his sleepy head. To dip the tip of the cat’s tail into the water and mimic the scrubbing of the floor was an everyday pastime. In addition to being an engineer and a comedian the bird was also a high tragedian. In the cool of the evening upon the going down of the sun the cat and the bird would set out together to the accustomed stage. Baal Burra burrowing through the long grass, painfully slow and cheeping plaintively, while Sultan stalked ahead mewing encouragingly. The tragedy, which was in one act, was repeated so often that each became confidently proficient, while the setting — free from the constraints of space — helped towards that degree of deception which is the highest form of art. Often we feared lest Sultan, carried away by enrapt enthusiasm, would unwittingly sustain his part even to the lamentable though natural DÉNOUEMENT. Baal Burra was, of’ course, the engaging and guileless victim, while Sultan, with triumphant realism, rehearsed a scene ruthlessly materialised elsewhere.

Climbing into a low-growing bush, Baal Burra would become preoccupied, innocently absorbed in an inspection of the young shoots and tender leaves which it seemed to caress. Assuming a ferocious mien, Sultan approached soliloquising, no doubt, “Ah, here is another silly wild-fowl! Come, let me indulge my bloodthirstiness!” His eyes glittered as he crouched, his tail thickened and swayed, his ears were depressed, his whiskers and nose twitched, his jaws worked, his claws were unsheathed and sheathed spasmodically as he crept stealthily towards the apparently unconscious bird. After two or three preliminary feints for the perfect adjustment of his faculties and pose, he bounded into the air with distended talons well over his screeching playmate. The scene would be rehearsed several times before Sultan, tired of mummery and eager for actualities, slunk yawling into the bush, while Baal Burra, whimpering in the dusk, waddled home to be caged.

Towards the further justification of the argument two cases in which scrub fowl (MEGAPODIUS DUPERREYI TUMULUS) are concerned may be cited. Being a previously recorded fact, the first is excusable only on the grounds of its applicability to a debatable point.

1. On a remote spot in a very rough and rugged locality, hemmed in by immense blocks of granite, is a large incubating mound. Save at one point it is encompassed by rocks, but the opening does not grant facilities for the accumulation of vegetable debris, yet the mound continually increases in dimensions. At first glance there seems no means by which such a large heap could have been accumulated for the birds do not carry their materials, but kick and scratch them to the site. A hasty survey shows that the birds have taken advantage of the junction of two impending rocks which form a fortuitous shoot down which to send the rubbish with the least possible exertion on their part. The shoot is always in use, for the efficacy of the mound depends upon the heat generated by actually decaying vegetation. Did the birds think out this simple labour-saving method before deciding on the site for the mound, or was it a gracious afterthought — one of those automatic impulses by which Nature confronts difficulties?

2. As I wandered on the hilltops far from home I was astonished when Tom, the cutest of black boys, dropped on his knees to investigate a crevice between two horizontal slabs of granite filled with dead leaves and loam. The spot, bare of grass, was about twenty yards from the edge of a fairly thick, low-growing scrub where scrub fowls are plentiful. I was inclined to smile when he said, “Might be hegg belonga scrub hen sit down!” He scooped out some of the rubbish — the crevice was so narrow that it barely admitted his arm — and finally dug a hole with his fingers fully fourteen inches deep, revealing an egg, pink with freshness.

A more unlikely spot for a scrub fowl to lay, could hardly be imagined. There was no mound, the crevice being merely filled flush, and the vegetable rubbish packed between the flat rocks did not appear to be sufficient in quantity to generate in its decay the temperature necessary to bring about incubation. Yet the egg was warm, and upon reflecting that the sun’s rays keep the granite slabs in the locality hot during the day, so hot, indeed, that there is no sitting down on them with comfort, I perceived that here was evidence on which to maintain an argument of rare sagacity on the part of the bird, and that the hypothesis might be thus stated: This cool-footed cultivator of the jungle floor had during the casual rambling on sunlit spaces become conscious of the heat of the rocks. Being impressed, she surveyed the locality, and of her deliberate purpose selected a spot for the completion of her next ensuing maternal duties which, while it scandalised the traditions of her tribe, presented unrealised facilities.

This was a natural incubator, certainly, but superior to those in common use in that the solar heat stored by the stone during the day rendered superfluous any large accumulation of vegetable matter. Surely it is but a short and easy step from the perception of solar heat to the conception that such heat would assist in the incubation of eggs. None but a mound-builder who, of course, must have general knowledge on the subject of temperatures and the maintenance thereof, could conceive that these heated rocks would obviate the labour of raking together a mass of rubbish. Further, her inherent perception that moist heat due to the fermentation was vital towards the fulfilment of her hopes of posterity would avert the blunder of trusting to the dry rocks alone. The hot rocks and a small quantity of decaying leaves stood in her case for a huge mound, innocent of extraneous heat. Having, therefore more time to scratch for her living, she would naturally become a more robust bird, more attractive to the males, and the better qualified to transmit her exceptional mental qualities to her more numerous offspring.

These are the bare facts. Let those who believe that birds are capable of taking the step from the fact to the principle continue the trains of thought into which they inevitably lead. Will this particular scrub fowl by force of her accidental discovery start a revolutionary change in the life-history of mound-builders generally? Or will the bird ——? But there are the facts to conjure or to play with.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32