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Active, Arboreal, Sociable and Vocal… Australasian Figbirds

By Keith Hutton on September 21, 2012 in Other

Photo: Tom Tarrant

Figbirds are vocal, active birds, a little bit bigger than Noisy Miners. They occur throughout the Sydney region wherever there are fruits to eat, particularly figs. Centennial Park, Hyde Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens are good places to see them but they are not always obvious high up in the canopies of tall trees. However, they often perch on overhead wires where their strong, mellow calls and the red faces of adult males attract attention. They are very sociable, medium-size birds that move around in loose, straggling flocks with undulating flight, searching for fruiting trees.

Only one species of figbird is currently recognised in Australia – the Australasian Figbird – but two distinct colour phases occur that are geographically separated, and which interbreed where they meet. Males and females are very different and only adult males exhibit the colour differences associated with their distribution.

Female figbirds are generally brown above and streaked below, and juveniles resemble females. Adult males of both types have black caps, distinctive red, pink or orange bare skin around their eyes, and black tails with white sides that show prominently in flight; there are no confusion species. In coastal eastern Australia, from Proserpine to Nowra, male birds have a slate grey collar, green backs and green flanks with a white belly, whereas in the tropical north they are rich greenish yellow above and mostly brilliant yellow below from chin to belly, with no grey collar. Hybrid birds show a mixture of characteristics from both.

Australasian Figbirds are distributed around the coast in suitable habitat from the northern Kimberley through Cape York to Nowra, with the yellow race in the tropical north and the local race south of Proserpine; hybrids occur over a wide zone between Cairns and Proserpine. Within the distribution range any habitat with tall, leafy fruiting trees is acceptable for figbirds, including rainforest edges, eucalypt forest and woodland, paperbarks, mangroves, orchards, parks, streets and gardens.

Early in the morning and later in the afternoon are the best times to see them feeding. They are primarily fruit eaters, but also eat beetles, other insects and their larvae, which provide protein and amino acids for muscle and feather growth, essential in the breeding season for fruit eating birds. Figbirds are acrobatic, arboreal feeders usually seen in the canopy in flocks, sometimes hanging upside down trying to access fruits on thin outer twigs, high up in the crowns of trees. They also forage aerially and glean food items from foliage.

In the first half of last century figbirds were known only as rare vagrants in Sydney but since then they have established themselves very successfully. Recent atlas surveys confirm they are thriving and continuing to increase in their preferred locations throughout Australia. The development of public parks and gardens and the planting of fig trees in some suburban streets for shade have been of great benefit for Australasian Figbirds, and appear to outweigh any disadvantages of reduced natural habitat resulting from land clearing and planned urban development.