My first picture book, Boogie Woogie Bird (illustrated by Sandra Severgini, published by Redback Publishing, 2022) is only weeks away from its debut! So exciting!
While I count down the days, I’m sharing the reasons I adore this bird—not that I’ve always been an admirer! My first encounters with Bush Stone-curlews were terrifying! But after Sandra first drew our delightfully dorky Curlew, I’ve seen them in a new light and have been besotted ever since.
“Why do you adore this rather bland, completely gawky bird,” I hear you say? After all, Australia brims with beautiful birdlife. There are glorious Eastern Rosellas, brilliant Kingfishers, and vibrant Gouldian finches with their electric-purple chests.
Let me tell you about curlews…
Ten Curious Quirks of Curlews
Quirk 1 – Screamo!
You may never have seen a Bush Stone-curlew, but if you live in Australia, there’s a good chance you’ve heard one. They’re the birds that scream all night. Their blood-curdling shrieks are reminiscent of a toddler being throttled.
Truly the stuff of nightmares.
Quirk 2 – A Bird by Any Other Name
Bush Stone-curlews are also known as the Bush Thick-knee, but long before they were given those names, Indigenous people called them ‘Ghost Birds’ linking them to death lore.
Their English name roughly mimics the sound of their call, ‘Weer-looo,’ but some say it derives from the Old French for messenger, ‘corlieu,’ or from the French verb ‘courir’ meaning ‘to run.’ Other common names include the disturbing ‘screaming-woman bird’, the charming ‘Willaroo,’ or the cute Afrikaans moniker, a ‘Dikkop.’
Quirk 3 – A Gang or a Gaggle?
You may, of course, call a group of curlews ‘a flock,’ if you want to be boring. Curlews have their own colourful collective nouns, like my favourite, ‘a curfew of curlews.’ Very tongue-in-cheek for a bird that parties hard all night long.
You might like a ‘skein of curlews’ or a ‘salon of curlews’ better.
Quirk 4 – Weirdo Alert
Bush Stone-curlews can be weirdos. In urban settings, curlews have been spotted at windows, chatting up or chest-bumping their reflection.
If they perceive their nest to be under threat, they perform a startling mantling display, hunching and splaying their wings like a matador’s cape. I once encountered this behaviour on my way to the carpark after work. Freaked.me.out. I definitely could have done without the accompanying hissing. Rude!
Conversely, Curlews are expert at playing Statues. When people or predators approach, they either ‘freezeframe’ or flatten themselves to the ground with eyes half-closed to blend into leaf litter and avoid detection. “Nope… Nothing to see here.”
Quirk 5 – Flight… Or not
Bush Stone-curlews can fly, but they rarely do. They prefer to use their wings for striking dramatic poses while dancing or defending their nest and young. As I mentioned, they can be weirdos.
Quirk 6 – Rulers of the Dance Floor
Curlew courtship is quite a production. There’s a lot of screaming and head-banging—err, singing and head-bobbing. Their courtship dance lasts an hour or more with wings spread, tail up, and neck stretched long. The birds stamp up and down like frisky grape-treaders, shrieking and tossing sticks and bits of bark to one another.
With both males and females engaging in the courtship dance, Bush Stone-curlews are truly Boogie Woogie Birds. It’s just that their moves are… well, kind of goofy.
For me, Queen of Self-Consciousness on the dance floor, what’s cool about curlews is they don’t care. So what if their dancing is dorky and delirious? Who cares what it looks like—it’s all about what it means: real dance bubbles up out of the soul in a primal expression of joy, wonder, and finding home.
That’s what my Boogie Woogie curlew discovers.
Quirk 7 – Avoiding Monogamy Monotony
I guess all that protracted curlew courtship / boogie-woogie-romance rigamarole is worth it given the nature of their pairing: curlews are mostly monogamous mates for life—and with a lifespan 20 or 30 years, that’s a long time to share a nest with a dud.
Maybe humans could take a leaf out of the Curlew’s nest and enter into relationships only after some endurance dancing and all-night shrieking. Or not.
Quirk 8 – Home
Sweet Humble Home
Nests are nothing fancy for the sensible Bush Stone-curlew, just a scratched-up hole in the dirt, strewn with leaf litter, dead grasses, and sticks. “It’s not much, but it’s home.”
Curlews have adapted well to urban life, seemingly unperturbed by the busyness of cities. They’re known to nest in conspicuous places, such as the centre of traffic islands and under demountable buildings on school campuses.
Scott O’Keefe, a Bush Stone-curlew expert formerly researching under the auspices of Griffith University, observed the birds encircling their nests with cigarette butts, presumably to deter pests. Now that is a classy home decor touch. (I jest; it’s actually advanced adaptation!)
Quirk 9 – Chicks & Their Mamazilla
Curlew eggs look like speckled white-chocolate Easter eggs, and the tiny chicks that hatch from them are adorable. The parents have been observed to remove all traces of the eggshells, probably to obscure the chicks’ presence.
When the chicks are about five days old, new parent birds’ protective behaviours escalate to from nervous to downright stroppy. Maybe their constant shouting is because they’re tired and cranky. It’s completely understandable—hatchlings are a lot of work. It’s as if Mamazilla is heckling any would-be predators: “Don’t even think about messing with my babies! See this beak? Touch my chicks and I’ll stab you!”
If anything—or anyone—comes too close, Mumma and Pappa Bird pull a Dracula stance, hissing and mantling their wings to fend off predators—dogs, kookaburras, even humans!
Quirk 10 – Stopping Traffic
It seems curlews stop at nothing for the safety of their babies, including throwing themselves in front of danger. I saw a video of mum and dad Curlew in the middle of a street, mantling at oncoming cars, to let their chicks safely cross the road. Like many ground-dwelling birds, parent curlews will fake an injury to draw a predator’s attention away from their young.
Curlew parents seem pretty uptight. I wonder if they guilt-trip their offspring? “Is it not enough that I’ve thrown myself in front of a car for you? I’d give my left wing to a dingo to keep you alive, and this is how you treat me?”
Top Tips for Curlew Conservation
If you are lucky enough to encounter curlews in your yard or neighbourhood, you can take steps to help these critters. 1) Domestic pets should be restrained around Bush Stone-curlews and their nests. 2) Putting out water out can be helpful in hot weather. Curlews like shallow water, so perhaps you could put out a dish. 3) Don’t be tempted to feed curlews. Human food can cause health problems, and it can lead other animals straight to the nest.
I like what one woman in Brisbane did to protect a family of Bush Stone-curlews living in a nature strip. She was concerned about Council mowing programs and people walking their dogs, so she set up two traffic cones marked “Wildlife – Keep Your Distance.” Well done!
Winging into Bookshops Soon!
Boogie Woogie Bird can be preordered here. I’ll update this link as buying options become available. Thanks for reading this far! How do you like Bush Stone-curlews now?