July Bird of the Month: The Grey Butcherbird

From Gladstone’s Notebook

Image:  Wikimedia Commons
Why did Grey Butcherbirds like the pair above shun Lyndfield Park for over 30 years?  Are these birds like Puccini’s Baron Scarpia and Mozart’s Queen of the Night – entrancing and exhilarating singers but inherently evil?  Is there an inverse relationship between population densities of Methodists and Grey Butcherbirds?    We explore these questions below. 

July Bird of the Month 

Image courtesy Wayne Weatherstone
 This is number 7 in a twelve part series inspired by Gladstone Weatherstone, a dedicated and knowledgeable amateur naturalist who lived on Lyndfield Park near Gunning from 1941 until his death in 1996. 

Each month we look at one of the birds Gladstone recorded in his notebook between 1962 and 1981 to see if it tells us anything about the recent history of our district.

On 4 July 1972 Gladstone wrote “First Grey Butcherbird since coming here in 1941 was heard close to home this morning.”  He also noted it again the following month.

For me, living not far from Gladstone’s former property, this seems extraordinary.  Grey Butcherbirds are quite common around here.  Yet Gladstone, a wide awake and very skilled birder, did not see or hear one for some three decades.  This was not due to bad luck or inattention on his part.  If he did not come across them they simply were not there.  How could this be so?  To consider why, let’s start with an introduction to this bird.

The Grey Butcherbird

Grey Butcher Birds.  John Gould's Birds of Australia 1848.
The Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) must have been noticeable when white colonists arrived in Australia.  It was first described by English ornithologist John Latham in 1801.  Other birds in the same family include the Australian Magpie, Currawongs, woodswallows and other members of the butcherbird genus.

The species remains alive and well today.  It is a common resident in the Upper Lachlan Shire and widely distributed right across Southern Australia.  Its conservation status is rated “Secure” across its range.  Most commonly found in eucalypt forests and open woodlands, it also uses many other woodland habitats – often on farms and in urban areas provided there are some woodland patches.

Image courtesy Mark Trinham https://scnature search.com.au

We see Grey Butcherbirds singly, in pairs or small family groups.  They are mainly arboreal, perching watchfully for prey which they snatch from the sky and on the ground.

What is this prey?  The two illustrations give a clue.  They feed on insects, small vertebrates including other small birds and their nestlings, lizards plus fruit and small seeds from time to time. 

Their common name of butcherbird derives from their practice of storing uneaten food in the forks of tree branches or, perhaps, even impaling it on sharp twigs. 

People have mixed views about the bird.  It is admired for its sometimes glorious piping song and loathed for its pitiless predation on small birds.

Writing in The Emu in 1922 Donald F Thomson, R.A.O.U, a careful observer of the species, wrote “I now believe the song of the Butcher Bird at its best to be finest song of any Australian bird I know.  Like many birds, I believe that the butcher bird sings its purest and best in moments of intense emotion, not only of happiness, but also pain or sorrow. 

Certainly, I have never been more moved by the song of any creature than when both birds burst into song in chorus, their heads held high, their bodies down to the tips of their wings and tails acquiver with the intensity of the song. “

The Courier Mail’s nature expert agreed, writing in June 1940 that this bird was unique as a vocalist in that it improvises.  “Other birds have set songs and sometimes good varieties of them.  But the butcher bird is no such conventional singer.  It will sit up on a high dead limb, when full and content after good feeding, and entertain itself and the world with an impromptu rhapsody.  All bird song is spontaneous, but this one is also ex tempore”.

Cats, Foxes and Butcher Birds in the Top Ten Threats to Native Birdlife

 emu-Australian Ornithology https://dor.org/10.1071/MU930188
In his Presidential Address to the Royal Australian Ornithological Union in 1930, Col. E A Le Souef (pictured right) identified what he saw as the main causes of the destruction and inevitable extinction of many species of native wildlife. 

Heading the list, not unsurprisingly, were foxes, cats and rabbits.  Coming in at number 6 though, the colonel pointed to butcher birds which had become a serious pest due to environmental changes wrought by clearing for farms.  Small birds had limited places in which to hide so “the Butcher-Bird does a great deal of harm amongst them” he said.

Some orchardists saw this as an opportunity rather than a problem.  They raised butcher birds from the nest and fed them around their properties to keep them on site to control Silvereyes which were ruining their fruit crops – an organic pest management technique no longer used today.



Cruel and Evil?  Or Just Efficient at Their Work?

Photo courtesy tassie birds@iinet.au.
Butcherbirds are no longer up there with the fox and cat as a critical threat to native wildlife as Col Le Souef thought them to be in 1930.  But they have remained disliked by many from colonial times on.

The butcherbird’s propensity to kill and dismember small birds like canaries while still in their cages did not endear it to people.   Its efficiency as a killer with a strong work ethic, dispatching and storing one victim in its larder and then going back for more, suggest to some that they enjoy their work much as a serial killer might.  The one pictured left is about to deal with a Blackbird.

Why Did Grey Butcherbirds Shun Lyndfield Park?

In August 1941 Gladstone married Brenda, eldest daughter of Dalton based orchardist and grazier Stanley Starr.  Stanley was a successful farmer who added new holdings to his farming enterprises over time, including part of Lyndfield at Oolong which he bought in 1925 from John Beresford.   Gladstone came from a large family so had no realistic prospect of inheriting his father’s farm at Parkesbourne.  For their wedding present Stanley settled the newlyweds on Lyndfield, which the Weatherstone’s later re-named Lyndfield Park to distinguish it from the larger property from which it came. 

The property had been substantially cleared in line with best practice at the time before Stanley purchased it.  When Gladstone took over as manager of Lyndfield Park there were some trees left but not many.  Weatherstone family lore has it that one of the proprietoral directions Stanley gave his son in law was to get on and remove the few trees remaining but Gladstone always managed to be just too busy to get to that job.

"We need trees to do this". Image courtesy J Attard drouintrees.blogspot.com
The Grey Butcherbird is a woodland dependent bird.  It needs some woodland patches for nesting, perching in wait for prey and using as a larder.

For most of Gladstone’s time Lyndfield Park featured excellent pasture but very few trees.  While he did not remove the few trees remaining he did not initiate any significant replanting.  The property simply had nothing to attract these birds to visit or stay.  No trees, no butcherbirds.  Gladstone did not record them in his notebook again

Eden Restored and the Devil Returns

The Lyndfield Park story is now well recorded in recent history.  From the 1980s onwards John Weatherstone, Gladstone’s son and successor, began a program of regenerative and sustainable farming which has proven highly successful and an inspiration to many others.  This is not the place for that story – except to point out that regenerative farming necessitates substantial areas of sensibly placed trees and shrubs as an essential element of a sustainably productive farm.

John says that there were no butcherbirds on Lyndfield Park when he and wife Jan took over the property from Gladstone and Brenda.  However, this changed as the trees and shrubs he introduced matured.  Grey Butcherbirds became quite common during the last few years they were there.   Was that a sign of Eden restored?  Perhaps not.  The couple had a great love of the many small birds that they had encouraged to reside around their house and worried about how they would fare with these new predators coming in. That concern was magnified when John saw a Butcherbird sitting on a tree branch with the remains of a small bird, possibly a wren, in its beak. From that time on, Grey Butcherbirds were shown the ’Not Welcome Here’ sign.

John’s view is an understandable one.  In the bird’s defence though, we should remember it is a part of nature.  We cannot admire the actions of villainous opera characters such as Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Puccini’s Baron Scarpia – but we have to delight in their glorious songs which enrich our lives.  Further, the appearance of the Grey Butcherbird on Lyndfield Park is a welcome sign that the property supports a full, healthy and beautiful ecosystem – as well as being at least as productive as it was in Gladstone’s time.

 It is possible to give small vulnerable birds a good chance against predators such as butcher birds.  Having a thick understorey layer of shrubs among our farm and garden trees provides just what they need to shelter from larger predators.  Spiky, spiny plants are particularly good.

Why Did Our Predecessors Clear So Many Trees?

An extensively cleared paddock devoted entirely to pasture - a sight quite common in the Gunning district.
Many paddocks that we see around the greater Gunning district today are essentially just pasture.   This is largely a legacy of the early settlers who worked hard to clear trees to make way for grass and crops together with successive government policies e.g. promotion of closer settlement on unsustainable small blocks.  With the benefit of hindsight and new knowledge we can see that, well motivated though they were, the early generations of farmers went in for overkill.  What led them to this?

Gladstone and Stanley Starr, together with many others in the district, were devout Christians (Methodists in their case).   Their faith and the Bible were important elements in guiding their lives and forming their world views.  The Bible certainly encouraged them to be good stewards.  “Be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it” and similar passages also inspired the view that agriculture was all about improvement by cultivating the wilderness. 

Farmers like Stanley and Gladstone were active in promoting and participating in show societies, mechanics institutes and the like – taking up any opportunities to learn ways to improve their farming.  They were wonderful contributors to the community and successful in their farming endeavours.  But their view of what constituted progress together with the state of agricultural science may have blinded them to the consequences of overzealous wilderness clearing.  Concepts like “the triple bottom line” had yet to be introduced.

The results of their work, both good and bad, is still with us today.  And it is fair to say that the recent absence of the Grey Butcherbird from Lyndfield Park is one consequence of their land clearing.  Is there an inverse relationship between the population densities of Methodist farmers and Grey Butcherbirds?  Perhaps a subject for a PhD thesis?

The principles that guided Stanley and Gladstone were good ones.  If they had the benefit of the latest knowledge we have today they would almost certainly have done things differently.  John Weatherstone recently found some newspaper clippings among Gladstone’s records.  He felt that one of them, a snippet  entitled “A Thought on Nature” first published in the U.S, Soil Conservation Journal, summed up both his and his father’s ethos.   It reads:

 God created the good earth for the service of this and future generations.
The earth is the Lord’s and tillers of the soil are stewards whose rights are matched with  responsibilities.
The earth and the homesteads upon it should be hallowed by acts of dedication and thanksgiving.
Good husbandry is a clear moral obligation, and the waste of created forces is a sin against our neighbour, against posterity, against the natural order and against God.

Good people doing what they thought was right in accordance with principles like these made Lyndfield Park a no go zone for the Grey Butcherbird and other wildlife.  And John Weatherstone, guided by the same ethos plus a new understanding of how the natural environment and production are intertwined, has brought them back – an inspiring and cheering demonstration for land managers everywhere.

Thank You

Thank you to:

•    Nicki Taws (Program Specialist – Ecologist, Greening Australia);
•    Dr Tony Saunders (ornithologist and President of the Crookwell Native Flora and Fauna Club);
•    Mark Clayton (former Senior Technical Officer, CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology). 

Mark, Tony and Nicki review drafts of these articles before publication.  I really appreciate their help.

Thank you also to:

 John Weatherstone for providing a transcription of Gladstone’s Notebook and fielding lots of follow up questions about Gladstone related matters.
Genevieve Starr for access to her short history of Lilstan which GDHS looks forward to publishing later this year.

Further Information

Lyndfield Park; looking back moving forward.  John Weatherstone  2003 tells the story of Gladstone’s former property as it moved from conventional to restorative farming.

Call of the Reed Warbler:  A New Agriculture – A  New Earth.  Charles Massy 2017.  A book about regenerative agriculture, including a complete chapter on Lyndfield Park.

You can obtain a short biography of Gladstone Weatherstone as a PDF file by emailing bobgunninghistoryblog@gmail.com


The main sources used in writing this article were:

“The Australian Bird Guide” Peter Menkhorst et al.  CSIRO Publishing

“Birds of the Upper Lachlan Shire” Dr Tony Saunders  Birds Found in the Upper Lachlan Shire by Dr Tony Saunders

In the Haunt of the Grey Butcher Bird (Cracticus torquatus)
Donald F F Thomson, R.A.O.U., 1922  Emu – Australian Ornithology 22:2, 138-140, DOI:  10.1071/MU922138

The Effect of Our Civilization on the Bird Life of Australia
Presidential Address read before Congress at Brisbane,October, 1930.
By E. A. LE SOUEF, F.Z.S., R.A.O.U.,1931

 Grey Butcher Bird, (1930) Emu - Austral Ornithology, 29:3, 200-200, DOI:10.1071/MU929200b

Butcher Bird Ill Named Songster: Richmond Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser 14 June 1940tp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article125949180med Songster” Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser (NSW : 1886 - 1942), Friday 14 June 1940, page 3
National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article125949180

“The Bible in Australia”  Meredith Lake Newsouth 2018 (A really interesting and engrossing read – highly recommended)

“Lilstan:  How Lilstan came to be built 100 years ago” by Genevieve Starr.  GDHS expects to publish this on https://gunninghistory.blogspot.com/ later this year.