Our rainforest fauna comes in all shapes and sizes –and this particular Daintree Blog is about a jetsetting mob of animals who live half of the year overseas, then fly back to the Far North of Australia to lead a very noisy life here in the warmer and wetter months of the year.
They must talk about their travels and life’s travails a lot, because their community is a constant buzz, with incessant chattering, starving kids yelling out and begging for food, frenetic comings and goings and the noise level of a busy city street.
And with those bulging red eyes, they’re quite startling.
We’re not talking about homo sapiens, of course, but birds – the ultimate party birds – a colony of Metallic Starlings.
Unfortunately, not all Daintree visitors get to meet them.
They usually leave our area around March, when their food supply here is getting low. Then when the trade-winds blow in from the South-east, they decide to hitch a free wind-assisted flight back up to New Guinea. They all fly back here again in September, along with a compelling need to breed.
However, flying is a demanding and energy-sapping business. As any human high flyer knows, your arms or wings get tired when you flap a lot, so when the starlings return, their first priority is to gorge themselves on rainforest food.
Once they’ve stocked up, its time for house-building and family matters. They usually return to the same tall tree as the year before, check out any surviving nests, and either trash them or renovate the remains. More often, they’ll just build new nests.
Sometimes, they’ll go out on a raiding party to tear apart and rob material from another bird’s nest to use in their own. Lazy party animals? Not really, but opportunistic and desperate to get that family going!
With their hunger and house issues sorted, the starlings can then focus on breeding, and voila, within a few weeks a whole mob of pale-chested youngsters have joined the party. Starlings will have two to three clutches in the one season. Overcrowding? No problem. They simply build new nests to cope with the growing family.
All this hard work can make for big colonies of up to 200 birds or so, in what must be the birdworld’s scruffiest nest system. While they do make a few single nests, more often they’ll build clumps or chambers of up to ten nests, scattered randomly throughout the tree. They look like they’ve been thrown together rather than constructed.
This strange nest architecture compares poorly with most other birds. For example, our little yellow Sunbird has a tidy, pendulous teardrop-shaped nest with a cute little awning near the top. The black Butcherbird’s nest is not as ornate, but at least it has a crude circular symmetry of woven twigs and fibre.
When you’re near the colony, you’ll hear and see a busy commotion of noise and activity, with hungry chicks yelling out and demanding food, while the adults are frenetically multi-tasking – foraging, feeding and socialising.
Metallic starlings are always on the move. From time to time, a chattering adult will swoop out of the tree, immediately followed by an enthusiastic flock of teenagers. Then, they’ll do a noisy circuit, wheel around and return to the colony. These typical short flights happen again and again throughout the day, and are definitely the big head turner for tourists, and locals.
It genuinely looks like they’re having fun, but there’s a much more serious intent – like gaining strength, learning important survival skills, and preparing for their winter return trip to New Guinea.
They are definitely noisy, but starlings are not nearly as raucously loud as our screeching parrot families, especially the well-known sulphur crested white cockatoos. But what starlings lack in volume, they make up for in numbers and persistence.
When you go in for a closer look, starlings are also much smaller than cockatoos.
The adults are mid-sized birds that look identical. They have those startling, bulging red eyes, and a full black coloured body with a distinctive metallic iridescent sheen – a vision of green to purple splendour and glittering, actually, like a glammed up, badly dressed 1970s Rocker. Hence the name Metallic starling.
The youngsters are really easy to distinguish inside the colony, because they have much paler, clearly visible white chests. But no glitter, and definitely no platform shoes.
Between September and March, keep an eye out for regular Metallic starling colonies anywhere between Mossman, the Daintree Village, the Daintree River ferry crossing and all the way to Cape Tribulation.
One regular colony is at the Rainforest Village Campground in Diwan. Owner’s Mark and Janelle are committed starling observers (which I guess makes them sterling starling spotters), and have reported some fascinating behaviour from their local starling mob.
Once they saw twenty or so massed around a smooth-trunked Quandong tree, gripping onto the trunk like grim death, with wings outstretched.
So, why on earth would they do that? Testing it for grip perhaps? Now, we know that snakes are major starling predators. We also know that some snakes are not great climbers – so maybe the starlings were searching for a slippery, smooth treetrunk for next year’s breeding season?
Or, the behaviour could be traced back to their ancestral relative, the black starling, which grips onto cave and earth walls in a similar way! If you know or you know someone who can give us a good explanation, we’d love to share it.
And here’s another quirky behaviour reported at the same colony.
Starlings can drop down from their treehouses to the ground, backwards, with a little flutter of their wings – just like a spider dropping down its silk thread. Yes, backwards, and then they land unsighted but safely on their feet. Fascinating stuff indeed!
These guys live at speed – or maybe even on speed. The lesson seems to be – live, eat and breed quickly; build rough expandable, but insecure nests; and be prepared to put up with a lot of collateral damage in the process.
While they might behave a bit like party animals, Metallic starlings are actually very industrious and also have a pretty healthy diet, compared with many of our Aussie birds.
Because our dominant Australian trees are flowering eucalyptus, acacias, banksias and the like, which contain lots of sugary nectar, lerps, manna and honeydew, most Aussie birds have a high sugar diet.
And too much sugar can make birds noisy, aggressive and territorial!
There might even be some lessons here for human parents and kids, but that could be walking on eggshells, so best not to go there!
Unlike the sugar eaters, starlings need stamina as well as strength, because they breed frequently and migrate. So, they eat lots of insects and seeds and might even go out on a foraging party for grubs on a nearby lawn. Of course fruit, and some nectar is a large part of their diet, by the way – they are Aussie birds after all.
Like the famous Nutmeg pigeon, they also eat the red mace from the outside of the nutmeg, which provides a big 40% protein hit.Starlings don’t chew like parrots, so when they swallow fruit such as nutmeg, the red mace coating is processed or rubbed off in their gizzards and the brown seeds are then pooped out – a bit like a cassowary or our domestic chooks (chickens to some people).
All this massed colonial feeding means that the base of their nesting tree becomes littered with pooped seeds, pungent smells, broken shells, torn nests and careless chicks. Just like their nests, the ground underneath is jumbled and untidy – it looks like a war zone, but it’s also a thriving little eco-system!! And it makes it much easier for researchers to examine their food intake and output.
Night-time predators such as snakes, giant white-tailed rats, even centipedes all enjoy the feast, and sometimes…each other. It’s a real jungle fiesta!
In world terms, it’s quite unusual for mainly fruit-eating birds to migrate so far, yet we have five species from the Daintree rainforest that fly to and from New Guinea. The other four are the Channel-billed cuckoo, the Koel (also a cuckoo), the Superb Fruit Dove and the famous pigeon with many names — the Pied Imperial, Torres Strait or Nutmeg pigeon to name a few.
This balanced high sugar, high protein diet, is only a small part of the secret behind the incredible starling energy and vitality. What’s even more important is the daily rainforest therapy that they enjoy just by being in our tropical Daintree rainforest. It’s absolutely true!
So, you’d do well to follow the starling lead when you immerse yourself in the Daintree for a few nights sleepover. Who knows what you’ll discover and how relaxed you’ll feel afterwards? The possibilities are endless.
If you plan to visit the Daintree when our starlings are in residence, make sure you keep an eye – and ear – open for those noisy starling excursions as soon as you reach the Daintree River ferry. Or on your many stops after that.
Also check out our D’Arcy of Daintree Tours – we always cover some good territory.
And please listen to some of our Podcasts “Rainforest Insights, with DArcy of Daintree” on iTunes, Spotify or via our website.