Noisy miner birds and the noisy humans who make them a problem


In Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, Bodega Bay is taken over by crows. It sounds cheesy now, but when the film based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story was released in 1963, it terrified audiences. I understand this. If you watched one particular species of bird at work on any given morning in our neighbourhood, you’d think we were living in a Hitchcockian dystopia. Many species have adapted well to city life, the possums that moved into roof cavities when there were no more tree stumps to live in, the scrub turkeys that gather newly laid mulch into nesting mounds, even our dog Spike whose journey from wildnerness and hunting to couch and treats should be the subject of a David Attenburgh special. But no creature has adapted quite so well as the aptly-named noisy miner.

I’ve seen these nasty, jaundice-eyed nazguls take on kookaburras, magpies, tawny frogmouths and even possums, letting out a series of piercing screams as they repeatedly divebomb those they dislike, which is everyone but their own kind. It ain’t pretty. Often confused with the unrelated Indian mynah, an introduced brown scavenger, the grey honeyeater noisy miner is doing so well in our urban environments they’ve reached superabundance, a polite word for plague. Recent research suggests we ought to cull them, a polite word for shootin’ ‘em. Like many native species, the miner is protected, so far. But in May 2014 they were put on the national most wanted list, for “aggressive exclusion of birds from woodland” and a recent study has described them as “despotic,” fingering the miner over the mynah for mayhem when it comes to other native bird populations.

Miners don’t like forested areas, preferring more sparsely placed trees and little understory, which is exactly what cleared urban parks and back yards are like. This means miners are doing brilliantly, but the problem isn’t just numbers. It’s their gangster behaviour. Miners attack in groups, driving away just about all smaller birds. In Cairns, 30,000 mynahs have been culled over the last two years, erroneously it seems, because as the recent study shows, it’s da miners and not da mynahs dat’s to blame.

One of the study’s authors and University of Queensland woodland bird ecologist Associate Professor Martine Maron says miners are a typical bully, winning against everything smaller than them. The butcher bird is the only bird they don’t attack, according to Maron, and this is possibly because butcher birds help them when they’re attacking larger predatory birds like owls. One “illegal” culling of noisy miners across a small patch of remnant forest in NSW “by .22 rifle” saw a more than doubling of other bird species a decade later. But the fact is this. With the miners despatched, we might hear birdsong instead of screaming in the morning. We might see fairy wrens, robins, fly-catchers and other teeny birds instead of those ugly miners. Maybe it’s a good idea. Perhaps miners are born bad and execution without trial is a fair cop.

But you have to ask yourself, if we’re going to cull those teeny miners, what will be next?  Will we have to cull the possums too? In Canada when I explained to friends that we had critters living in our ceiling, they looked horrified – understandably I suppose, in a country where the critters start at wolf and end at cougar or grizzly bear. And if possums, why not scrub turkeys? Maron said she didn’t like the idea of killing any animal but the miners aren’t just annoying like possums or scrub turkeys; they’re reducing biodiversity. At any rate, we already cull native animals, Maron said, not for something so noble as biodiversity but for money. We cull wombats in Victoria, because they dig holes in farmland. We’ve culled kangaroos, dingos, and birds including silvereyes, kookaburras, cockatoos and corellas, sometimes just so we can play golf.

It might be easier to go to the source of the problem. We wouldn't need to cull any of these animals if we dealt with the noisiest and most bothersome creature, the one that causes all the others to modify their lives, the one that chopped out the woodlands and killed all predators, the one that's me. Yikes!

Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend magazine on 14 February 2014. Happy Valentine's Day.