Walking and Unwitting Death Trap: September Bird of the Month


Image courtesy Duade Paton https://www.photos.duadepaton.com

From Gladstone's Notebook:  Sometimes Poisonous, yet a Culinary Delight and the Explorer’s Saviour – the Common Bronzewing  

This is number 9 of a 12 part series in which we take a bird recorded in Gladstone Weatherstone’s notebook between 1962 and 1981, see if anything is different today and, if so, try to explain why. 

 Gladstone was a dedicated and knowledgeable amateur naturalist who lived on Lyndfield Park near Gunning from 1941 until 1996

Image of Gladstone Weatherstone courtesy Wayne Weatherstone.

The Common Bronzewing  

On 3 September 1967, Gladstone wrote “Several Bronzewing Pigeons seen near Jerrawa and possibly nesting near Catherine’s Creek”.  This bird makes only a few appearances over the 19 years covered by his notebook.  In June 1973 he wrote “Bronze-winged Pigeon observed feeding around the house today, also two days later.  First time seen in close.” In March 1978 one was flushed from his backyard.  He also lists it as a species seen at least once in the Dalton Travelling Stock Reserve. 

This large, plump, and beautiful pigeon can be found right across Australia.  The only environments it cannot abide are treeless plains, waterless desert and wet forest.  While its numbers may have fluctuated over time, its conservation status today is classified as secure.  It figures in Australian colonial, culinary, and cultural history.  Also, as a walking death trap for feral predators, its legacy lives on in an essential tool we use in our battle against destructive predators today. 

First Fleeters and the Common Bronzewing Pigeon

The bird was called the Bronze Winged Pigeon from the very earliest days of British colonisation.  In 1789 it was pictured and described at length by Captain Arthur Phillip in his account of the First Fleet expedition, The Voyage to Botany Bay.

This publication described it as being the size of the large “dove houfe pigeon” commonly kept in England.  It is safe to assume that the new arrivals would have found it no less suitable for the pot as the English bird they knew from home. 

Pictured right:  Copper-line engraving of a Bronze Winged Pigeon by Peter Mazell After Ann Latham from ‘The voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay’

Enter the Common Bronzewing

When the bird was first described by John Latham in 1790, he included the term “pigeon” in its title.  The scientific name he gave it, Phaps chalcoptera, translates as bronze wing. John Gould re-affirmed this title in 1843. 

Over time the term “pigeon” has disappeared from its name.  Neville Cayley listed it as the Common Bronzewing in What Bird Is That, his best-selling and influential bird guide published in 1931.  Today it is just the Common Bronzewing.

Pictured left:  An undated watercolour of a pair of Bronzewings by Neville Cayley.  Digital image produced by Daniel Stainsby courtesy La Trobe Journal, State Library of Victoria.

High Living

Beautiful to see, beautiful to eat.  People had high regard for the culinary qualities of the Common Bronzewing as the following extract from the Freeman’s Journal of 2 October 1875 shows.

HIGH LIVING.-  A gentleman who has visited most of our colonial towns (reports the Forbes Times) stated the other day that in all his travels he never fared so sumptuously as at Forbes.  In enumerating one day’s bill of fare at one of our hotels he said. – “I had grilled snipe for breakfast, brush turkey for dinner and bronze-winged pigeon for tea, and if a fellow wants better living than that he ought to go and work for his living.” 

Stewed Pigeon

How might the cook prepare the pigeon for the table?  I haven’t found a recipe from the Gunning district but the following which appeared in The Queenslander's Cookery column in October 1900 seem typical for the time.

Stewed Pigeon

Clean and truss the pigeon.  Put it into a stew pan with a tablespoon of butter, and fry over the fire until nicely browned, keeping the pan covered.  Then add a good gill [about 118 mls] of stock;  let the pigeon simmer gently for about half an hour, or until tender.  If liked, a blanched and sliced onion may be added.  When done, take up the pigeon, remove the string, sprinkle a little salt over it.  Let the gravy boil up, and pour round the pigeon. 

 Serve very hot, garnished with a strip of fried bacon, and slices of lemon.  Wonga, bronzewing and other wild pigeons are much more tender cooked in this way, but they take a good time to simmer and must be cooked slowly.  If liked, the gravy can be thickened with a little brown flour, and half a glass of port wine added. 

Pedigree Pigeon

During the late 1800s, there are records of English bird fanciers keeping Bronzewing Pigeons from Australia.  Colonial bird lovers were also attracted to this species.  In 1873, for example, a pair of  Bronzewing Pigeons were “justly awarded first prizes at the Northern Tasmania Poultry Society 6th Annual Show.  Common Bronzewings do not seem to be favoured as a caged bird today.  A local bird fancier just gaped at me in amazement when I asked if there were any of these birds in the family’s aviary.

The Explorer’s Saviour

The Common Bronzewing flies to water in the late afternoon, landing 20 to 30 metres away and walking cautiously to the edge.  Observant wanderers in the bush who knew this were able to follow birds to water sources.

Indeed, the Common Bronzewing is credited with preserving the life of explorer Charles Sturt.  He was saved when he saw one and then followed its path to water, which he stood severely in need of at the time. 

Photo of Common Bronzewing male exiting the bathtub courtesy Robert Plumtree http://robplumtree.blogspot.com.au

The Common Bronzewing’s propensity to fly to water at predictable times made it vulnerable to knowledgeable shooters, one of whom wrote in a May 1873 article in the Town and Country Journala sure method of killing pigeons is to watch by a water hole, on a summer’s night, just as the sun goes down; for then they come to drink, but, ‘so soon as the evening star shows, all chance of sport is over, and you may go home.’”

Walking Death Trap

On 28 July 1885, the following letter from botanist and naturalist William Webb appeared in the Albany Mail. “I have just had a valuable dog poisoned by eating the breastbone of a bronzewing pigeon.  I skinned the bird for stuffing, and as it was a fine plump fellow, I roasted it for my breakfast and threw all the bones in the fire excepting the breastbone, which the dog managed to get.  

I wish you to notice this circumstance in your valuable paper for the benefit of those people who have dogs and cats they value to keep out of their way the bones of the wild pigeon.  For my own part, I shall be very badly in want of animal food before I eat another of these birds.“

Webb went on to suggest that the birds became toxic from eating seeds of the poison bush Gastrolobium bilobum.  He was right.   Gastrolobium plants contain the poison fluoroacetate.  Birds and mammals which eat their seeds and flowers become toxic to foxes, dogs, and cats.  Native carnivores such as dingoes appear to be immune.

Gastrolobium species grow mainly in the south-west of Western Australia.  This area also has a high number of conservation listed marsupials.  Researchers*  say these marsupials are protected by the fact that native prey like the Common Bronzewing is toxic to predators.  They are calling for more work to see if fostering these plants across their range can aid the survival of native fauna.

Left:  Despite its harmless appearance, the Common Bronzewing can poison introduced predators. Image courtesy Noel Luff and Canberra Ornithologists Group http://canberrabirds.org.au

As a passionate naturalist, Gladstone was well aware that foxes and cats were driving many of the animals he loved to extinction.  He did his best to keep them off his place.  Like many of his contemporaries though, he did so as an individual on a piecemeal basis.  To Gladstone, the rise of these feral pests seemed unstoppable.  Today, we know that determined, strategic wide-scale pest control by neighbours working together can make a real difference.  

Pictured: Lucy Knight, Scott Keyworth [left] and Jennifer Heffernan [right rear] of  Gunning District Landcare with South East Local Land Services staff.  They are planning a district-wide campaign against the fox.  Operations like this are essential to prevent the enormous environmental damage caused by this destructive predator.

Gunning District Landcare (in partnership with South East Local Land Services, surrounding Landcare groups and land managers) organises big landscape-scale campaigns using a poison called 1080.  The poison’s active ingredient is fluoroacetate.  Many people involved in these campaigns would prefer to use a more benign control method than poisoning if they could.  But there is no real alternative.  Scientific research and the lived experience of land managers show it to be the only way to make a real difference for the better.   While other methods can help supplement the use of this poison, they cannot replace it.  Were Gladstone alive today, he would welcome this valuable new approach as a great boon to our wildlife, stock and environment.

The Common Bronzewing:  Making a Comeback?

Co-ordinated fox control campaigns have been underway in Lade Vale district for some 20 years.  While the Common Bronzewing has always been around,  we see them more often now - almost certainly because there are fewer foxes present.  There are also other reasons. 

Above:  Common Bronzewings abounding.  Photo courtesy M Dahlem https://mdahlem.net

A November 1874 report in the Australian Town and Country Journal lamented that in the County of Cumberland “the bronzewing pigeon is now rarely met with, solely, we are disposed to think because the green wattle has been destroyed or made scarce”.  

The Common Bronzewing is very fond of wattle seed, including that of the Green Wattle (Acacia decurrens).  Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata) is another favourite.  These two wattles feature as part of Greening Australia’s regenerative seeding mix which has been planted extensively throughout the region.  They have also benefited from improved grazing regimes.  

Photo courtesy M Dahlem https://mdahlem.net

Wattles help restore fertility to the soil and bring back lost habitat and shelter – particularly for smaller birds.  

The Common Bronzewing has been one of the many beneficiaries of these renewal projects.  It is a double pleasure to see them around – they are such attractive birds in their own right, and their presence suggests we are doing some things right.

A male Bronzewing guarding eggs on a nest [made on top of a repurposed White-winged Chough nest].  This species has prospered in the more diverse and productive landscapes we are creating today. 

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.

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  

“Bringing Back Birds. A Glovebox Guide” Nicki Taws, Greening Australia Capital Region. 2007

“Woodland Flora – a field guide for the Southern Tablelands.  Sharp S, Rehwinkel R, Mallinson D, and Eddy D.  Friends of Grasslands Canberra.  2015


*Historical accounts of toxicity to introduced carnivores consuming bronzewing pigeons (Phapschalcoptera and P. elegans) and other vertebrate fauna in south-west Western Australia.   

David E. Peacock1*, Per E. Christensen2 and Brian D. Williams1  Australian Zoologist Volume 35 (3)