Tawnies are so comical and often remind me of muppets. Their feathers are beautifully marked and their eyes are stunning golden spheres.
Masters of disguise, with the deadliest of stares, the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) is one of Australia’s most beloved birds. But because they’re most active at night, their unique behaviors are less obvious to us.
According to Australia’s pre-eminent tawny frogmouth expert Gisela Kaplan, who has recently compiled 20 years of observations into a new book on this unique nocturnal bird, these birds live complex lives we still know very little about.
Of course, tawny frogmouths are known for their very effective camouflage, but if a predator persists it can get messy.
The frogmouths first response is to mob, using their beaks to peck at nest intruders. If this fails, the tawny will then spray the predator with their faeces.
According to Gisela, this confuses the predator, especially snakes, monitors and other animals that rely on their sense of smell. And it can take weeks for the smell to go away.
Promiscuity for the sake of increasing breeding success just isn’t for Frogmouths. Instead, they tend to choose a partner for life.
The male tawny frogmouth is fiercely territorial and protective of their nests, and will often drive off any male who tries to intrude.
These frogmouth pairs are so close that they evict their offspring and spend the rest of their lives close together, perching on trees, leaning against, and grooming each other.
So how do they find the perfect mate? There’s no evidence of courtship between these birds, but it has been suggested that vocal signals and pupil dilation may play a part.
Tawny frogmouths are so well-insulated by their feathers that neither the cold nor the heat has much of an effect on them.
Based on Gisela’s observations, the tawny won’t show notable signs of heat distress even as the temperature soars to more than 30 degrees.
Rather than opening their beak for better ventilation, the tawny can triple their breathing rate with their beaks closed and produce a type of mucus in their mouths that helps to cool the air as they inhale, which then cools their body.
When the weather is colder, the tawny is one of the only large birds, who go through small bouts of torpor — a type of winter hibernation — to cope with the loss of heat and energy.
The tawny uses a number of different calls to express everything from fear to annoyance. However, the most saddening is what Gisela has termed the “whimpering call”.
Describing it as “gut-wrenching” and similar to the “low whimper of a newly born baby in serious pain” this particular call can go on for an entire night.
Gisela once observed a bird making this call for several days after a female tawny had lost her male partner in a road accident. The bird then rejected partners for the following two years, which Gisela says may indicate an emotion of grieving.
The whimpering call has also been observed in birds that are about to leave the nest and birds that have been newly orphaned.
Master nests builders, tawny frogmouths are not. The male tawny will often pick up a few sticks and some leaves and dump them into place; no arrangement and nothing to secure anything in place.
Gisela says that, with the exception of pigeons, these frogmouths are the least accomplished of Australia’s nest-building birds.
In some cases, tawny frogmouths will just hijack the abandoned nests of different birds.
Once past the nestling stage, they go into a large flight aviary where they are given opportunities to catch live food in preparation for their release. For this, she purchases woodies (bush cockroaches), mealworms, beetles, and mice. This is the best we can do as human foster parents but it can never match the parenting that can be provided by the parent birds. So the best outcome for a bird that has been separated from its parents is always to be given every chance to be reunited with its parents.
Having said that, tawnies are wonderful birds and a joy to raise. When a new bird comes in it usually just snuggles in to one of the others and goes to sleep. Little ones are comforted by the older ones and they form a happy family together until it is time for their release to the wild.
According to ‘Save Our Waterways Now,’ tawny frogmouths (which live in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea) are very social and friendly. They will snuggle up to one another, comfort each other, and generally act as happy little families.
One of the main differences between owls and frogmouths is their feet. While owls use their powerful talons to catch their midnight snacks, frogmouths have weak feet and rely on their beaks for hunting. However, what they share in common is that their chicks look absolutely adorable and make us want to hug them tight.
Tawny Frogmouths are between 34cm (females) and 53cm (males) long and can weigh up to 680g. Their plumage is mottled grey, white, black, and rufous – the feather patterns help them mimic dead tree branches.
Their feathers are soft, like those of owls, allowing for stealthy, silent flight. They have stocky heads with big yellow eyes. Stiff bristles surround their beak; these ‘whiskers’ may help detect the movement of flying insects, and/or protect their faces from the bites or stings of distressed prey (this is not known for certain).
Their beak is large and wide, hence the name frogmouth.
Their genus name, Podargus, is from the Greek work for gout. Why? Unlike owls they don’t have curved talons on their feet; in fact, their feet are small, and they’re said to walk like a gout-ridden man! Their species name, strigoides, means owl-like.
They’re nocturnal and carnivorous, but Tawny Frogmouths aren’t owls – they’re more closely related to Nightjars.
There are two other species of frogmouth in Australia – the Papuan Frogmouth (Podargus papuensis) lives in the Cape York Peninsula, and the Marbled Frogmouth (P. ocellatus) is found in two well-separated races: one in tropical rainforests in northern Cape York and the other in subtropical forests of southern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales.