Canberra's bird brains: From pilfering coat hangers to nesting in letterboxes

Regular readers may recall the remarkable bird's nest found last year at the bottom of a fallen gum tree in Red Hill, laden with wire and interwoven with coat hangers and techno-garb.

So unusual was the composition of the nest that it was promptly donated to the CSIRO's National Wildlife Collection, a treasure trove of Australian scientific specimens including skins, skeletons, eggs and nests.

Marc Peters of Bungendore examines the 30-year-old magpie nest he found in a blue gum after it blew down during a recent storm. Picture: Tim the Yowie Man

Marc Peters of Bungendore examines the 30-year-old magpie nest he found in a blue gum after it blew down during a recent storm. Picture: Tim the Yowie Man

The bird boffins at the CSIRO have studied many magpie nests containing wire but hadn't previously seen one comprising so many coat hangers and techno-garb including a mobile phone charger and 3D glasses. While the the nifty nest is almost definitely the handiwork of an Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen), CSIRO is currently testing the material in the nest for genome traces to confirm which bird made the nest. Apparently there's an outside chance it could also be the creation of an opportunistic Australian raven (Corvus coronoides).

Despite their reported rarity, over the last few months I've received further evidence of magpie nests interwoven with coat hangers, none more impressive than a 30-year-old nest which came tumbling down in a Bungendore backyard following a recent windstorm.

The Red Hill nest woven with coat hangers that is now part of the CSIROs official nest collection. Picture: Tim the Yowie Man

The Red Hill nest woven with coat hangers that is now part of the CSIROs official nest collection. Picture: Tim the Yowie Man

"I knew the tree was rotten and heard it creaking during the storm so went out to have a look," reports Marc Peters of Bungendore. "Two minutes later the tree, and nest, came crashing to the ground."

While it had been perched high in the 15-metre-tall blue gum, Marc was unaware of the extent of wire and coat hangers in the nest, but once on the ground, he was able to count "at least five coat hangers and various other pieces of wire embedded in the nest".

"The nest is remarkable as it's been used for over 30 years to fledge generations of the same magpie family", reports Marc. "The maggies are still around, and will no doubt build a nest in one of the adjoining blue gums this spring".

Then there's the case of an abandoned magpie nest in Garran, which renowned Canberra birdwatcher Geoffrey Dabb of Narrabundah reveals was recently used by a Tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) family.

Tawny Frogmouths use an abandoned magpie nest, full of wire, in Garran. Picture: Geoffrey Dabb

Tawny Frogmouths use an abandoned magpie nest, full of wire, in Garran. Picture: Geoffrey Dabb

According to Geoffrey, "Tawnies will use abandoned magpie nests, even if it seems there is an obvious a risk of entanglement in wire and coat hangers".

A check through birding blogs indicates that although not commonplace, there are accounts of coat hangers popping up in magpie nests elsewhere around the country. One lady from Manly in NSW was mystified why she kept losing coat hangers off her clothesline until she noticed a magpie nest made almost entirely of her colourful coat hangers in a nearby tree.

While the increase in reports of coat hangers in magpie nests hasn't (yet) been the subject of any studies that I'm aware of, I suspect it may be the result of several reasons, including the practise of modern-day dry cleaners to provide lightweight coat hangers which many people sadly discard instead of re-using.

Starling surprise

Magpie nests laden with coat hangers aren't the only accounts of unusual nests around Canberra to recently lob in my inbox. These include a report from a northside postie who was "very surprised to find a nest, complete with small blue egg, in a Gungahlin letterbox".

The nest and blue egg discovered by a postie in a northside letterbox. Picture: Supplied.

The nest and blue egg discovered by a postie in a northside letterbox. Picture: Supplied.

According to Geoffrey Dabb, "the culprit was likely a Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) which are renowned for being cavity nesters and lay small blue eggs".

I'm not sure if the discovery of the out-of-place nest reflects more on the bird for its desperation to find a suitable location to nest or on modern society where the majority of mail is now electronic, leaving letterboxes empty for increasing periods of time.

Wedgie wonder

Arguably the best-known nest in Canberra isn't natural, rather that striking metal sculpture of a Wedge-tail eagle (Aquila audax) sitting on its nest at the National Arboretum. Cleverly crafted from welded steel found-objects, mostly abandoned farm machinery, the sculpture was created by Richard Moffatt in 2007 and sits at the top of Dairy Farmers Hill. It's a favourite among local photographers.

Richard Moffatt's striking metal sculpture, Nest III, at the top of Dairy Farmers Hill. Picture: Michelle Taylor

Richard Moffatt's striking metal sculpture, Nest III, at the top of Dairy Farmers Hill. Picture: Michelle Taylor

As a regular visitor to the site, on several occasions your Akubra-clad columnist has overheard uninformed visitors chatting about the nest being a tad unrealistic, with some describing it as "way too big for a real bird".

These claims couldn't be further from the truth. Wedge-tailed eagles can create very large nests. In fact, the biggest nest I've set eyes upon was a partially collapsed one at Dixieland near Adaminaby. "Before it collapsed it was at least 4 metres in diameter," Dixieland owner Rod Smith told me in 2012. "Eagles have been using this nest for at least 30 years and rarely re-use sticks when rebuilding their nest, hence the big pile of debris beneath it", explained Rod who also claimed to have found "a skeleton of an eagle with a rabbit trap attached to its leg in the nest". Heck.

Corin curiosity

According to the records of the Canberra Ornithologists Group, one of the most unusual nest discoveries in the ACT occurred in 1994 when the remains of a seabird, a Long-tailed jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus), were found in the nest of a Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) at Corin Dam. Not surprisingly, the unfortunate jaegar, thought to have blown off course during a storm and caught by a falcon, was the first record of this species in the ACT.

Have you found something unusual in a bird's nest? If so, I'd love to hear from you.

"Snow Dome"

The Shine Dome covered in snow in winter 1965. Picture: John Howard

The Shine Dome covered in snow in winter 1965. Picture: John Howard

This column's recent exposé on the Shine Dome prompted a bulging mailbag, with many readers nominating their preferred nickname for the landmark building. While most voted for 'the Martian Embassy', there were a couple of suggestions from left field, including Catherine Sullivan of Queanbeyan who as a child was told "that the dome was modelled on a starfish".

John Howard of O'Connor reports that during the dome's construction, "for the purpose of uniform measurement of the dome, a special tape measure was used rather than the usual 'chain tape' in common use in those days". However, according to John, "during construction of the formwork a chain tape had inadvertently been used on one side and the special tape on the other, resulting in a slightly distorted dome". Thankfully, according to John, "the error was discovered before the close of day and the wet concrete broken up before it had set." Phew! John was also one of several readers to submit photographs of the dome covered in snow.

Meanwhile, Liz Lanigan reports she was at the infamous function in 2016 when a visitor fell off the bridge and into the moat. "The woman in question was taking a photo of an internationally renowned dance artist along with others attending the function, and while attempting to fit everyone in the picture, walked backwards without looking," reports Liz.

"Unfortunately none of us managed to capture the image of her fall," recalls Liz. "Still, the moment is etched in our memories and always guaranteed to give us a good belly laugh."

For the record, the photographer wasn't injured (apart from her pride) but was apparently left in need of a towel and a change of outfit.

And finally, it seems a toilet wasn't the only item placed atop the dome by ANU students during annual Orientation and Bush Week pranks. Ed Wensing recalls that "in the 1960s, some students even plonked a 'No Parking' sign on top of the dome!"

CONTACT TIM: Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.

Where in Canberra?

Do you know the location of this spiky specimen? Picture: Tim the Yowie Man

Do you know the location of this spiky specimen? Picture: Tim the Yowie Man

Clue: Near the real thing

Degree of difficulty: Easy

Last week: Congratulations to Glenn Schwinghamer of Kambah who was the first reader to identify last week's photo as the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, appropriately located near the Churchill Building on the corner of Liversidge Street and Balmain Crescent in the ANU.

Glenn just beat Catriona Vigor of Isaacs, Karl Gordon of Weston and Robyn Brodie-Grant of Civic to the prize.

Where in Canberra last week. Picture: Tim the Yowie Man

Where in Canberra last week. Picture: Tim the Yowie Man

"I think the last time I saw the statue, I was drunk and up to no good, 20-odd years ago," confesses Jarred Needham, referring to Winnie's previous home, until 2001, outside the former Churchill House at 218 Northbourne Avenue. "Back then Winnie was often adorned in a Christmas hat or Raiders beanie to entertain passing commuters," reports Sue Wigley.

A number of readers lamented that the statue's current location is hard to find. "He caught me by surprise one day as he is hidden behind some trees," reports Maureen, adding "the statue itself is quite large, just like the person himself".

The statue, a gift to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (which provides an opportunity for Australians to travel overseas to conduct research in their chosen field), is a replica of the Ivor Roberts-Jones original (1973) located in Parliament Square, London. Although Brian Kelty reports he spotted "another duplicate in The Prague". I wonder, are there more?

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to timtheyowieman@bigpond.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday May 18, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.

Simulacra corner 

Rock 'face' in Thredbo River. Picture: David Vincent

Rock 'face' in Thredbo River. Picture: David Vincent

It seems that Gus Higgins (Simulacra Corner, May 11) isn't the only adventurous reader to be spooked by a 'face' peering back at him from the stony shallows of our region's rivers.

While recently wetting a line in the Thredbo River, this column's regular fishing correspondent, David Vincent of Weetangera, noticed this face, "complete with apparent broken nose", staring up at him

For the record, the NSW open season for recreational fishing in trout streams closes on Monday, June 10.