Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Character in Birds

Wild birds play, and in their pastimes show all their beauty and gracefulness to advantage; the airs often assumed in their ecstasy are evidence almost of pride in the effect that their antics and feats produce on the mind of the beholder. In many parts of the coastal tract of North Queensland a singularly important little bird — a member of the crow family — is fairly plentiful. To him I would appeal as witness in support of the opinion that birds gloat over their superiority to man in respect of flight.

The spangled drongo is black, but not so black that a shade of greenish purple is absent from his shoulders. He has a decidedly crowish head and bill, brownish-red eyes, and a long, fish-like, forked tail, which he has the habit of twitching or flicking to emphasize the meek, clinking tones of his staid and sober moments. Though a bird of the forest, the drongo chooses resorts adjacent to the jungle, and, (in my experience) invariably selects the Moreton Bay ash for nesting. Among the thin, grey-green leaves, far towards the end of a branch, the nest is fairly safe, though conspicuous. But if the nest were not easily seen, the drongo is not of a disposition to allow anyone to pass without noticing his demure spouse, whose long tail sticks out with matronly pride over the edge of the nest of twigs in defiance of all conventions. He “cheeps” and she answers, for she is just as fussy over the business as he is vain. Most birds are secretive in respect of the serious occupation of their lives. The drongo and his consort make as much of it as possible, advertising it far and wide, and they follow and feed their young, making much noise, long after the nest has been deserted.

In many ways and attributes the drongo is a character. Conspicuous, noisy, self-assertive, fussy, and inconsequent, it might be thought that his duties in the harmony of nature were of little concern to others. But, as a fact, he is so useful and so brave that the lives of many others would be attended with greater risks and be less comfortable and happy if his species were exterminated. Many other birds he bullies most impudently, for he has a voice “like Mars, to threaten and command;” but his office is peaceful; for he is head of the detective department. He owns no deputy. He glories in his work, which he performs with the utmost vigilance. The chief enemy of other birds — domestic as well as wild — in this locality is the grey falcon. Whensoever the falcon comes, the drongo makes proclamation and follows him, using language calculated to provoke a breach of the peace. Domestic fowls understand enough of the drongo’s dialect to take up the alarm when he sounds it, and my dogs, well acquainted with the language of the fowls, fuss in response, so that I am almost instantly informed of the presence of the falcon. Of the ruddy-backed sea-eagle, and of the osprey, neither the drongo nor the much-petted fowls take the slightest notice; but a falcon cannot escape detection, and, when three or four drongos make common cause against him, flies away with a sulky air, followed by volleys of such wrathful, feather-ruffling language that two or three days may elapse ere the black detective has another case on his hands.

Shrewd and observant as is the drongo, he does not devote all his leisure moments to the office he so well fills. When he takes his pleasure, he throws his whole soul into it. His delight is triumphant, his ecstasy transcendent. Yet one is inclined to the belief that he “shows off,” conscious of the admiration that is his due. Since few of the antics of wild creatures so vividly express frenzied joy and gladness in life, such utter abandonment to the blissful passion of the moment, an attempt to describe an aerial feat performed almost daily for my special edification cannot be foregone.

All birds save the bloodthirsty, sneaking falcon are privileged, but none understands the rights he enjoys as acutely as the drongo, and none takes such liberties. So when my ears are assailed by a hopelessly discordant jangle, I know that my friend the drongo is ringing his bell as a preliminary advertisement to his superb act. As he jangles, “out of tune and harsh,” he impels himself with all his might up into the air almost perpendicularly. At the extreme limit of flight his utterances change, and with stiffened wings, distended to the utmost vertically over his back, he casts himself headlong towards the ground, to the accompaniment of a torrent of twittering, too sharp and rapid and violent for distinct enunciation.

Has the wilful bird gone mad that he should deliriously dash himself to death?

Can he possibly check himself?

Just as one feels constrained to rouse him to a sense of the danger from his giddy feat by a sharp exclamation, the drongo spreads his wings, and, with an impudent whistle, flies off to a tree, to “chink” and “clink” as he flirts his tail with self-satisfaction over the neat performance of an exciting and incomparable trick.

In the evening, at this season, the drongo makes himself quite at home. In the soil, in the cleared space about the house, are thousands of ivory-white grubs which, when they develop into chubby brown beetles, are regarded as dainties by birds. But the beetles, realizing in a dim, earth-encumbered, lumbering style that it is fatal to emerge either in broad daylight, when many enemies are about, or when night has fallen and the wailing stone curlew and the sedate mopoke and the noisy “chop chop” (nightjar) are prowling, choose the few minutes of dusk for their exit from the moist soil. Then the drongo comes, and, apologizing for his intrusion with a few meek “cheeps,” makes the best use of his time. Sport being exciting and the game delicious, he swoops and darts until he is bewildered by the darkness. How intensely human is the drongo! In his distress he sets up a loud and appealing “jangle;” this plaint is immediately answered by his home-keeping consort; off he flutters, guided by her continuous calls, and the upbraidings and the explanations and consolations continue for fully five minutes.

A few cute old domestic hens, taught by the drongo, wait up after the others have gone to roost and hunt the booming beetles in terrible earnest — but they sneak off to their perches without exciting comment. Note the unconcern of the polygamist!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50