A personal and historic look at the Big Scrub – Ken Dorey 

When I first began to browse my newly acquired Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (Simpson and Day), I was amazed to find the rainbow-coloured Noisy Pitta. I would more easily believe that unicorns existed then this strange bird.

But this unicorn does exist and, even as I planted my first rainforest trees, I thought that when I saw a Noisy Pitta in my future forest I would know that my forest and I had ‘made it”. To see this amazing bird checkout Tim Siggs’ short video.

Did you hear the “walk-to-work” call? These rainforest snail-eaters migrate each winter to the lowland rainforests, like the Big Scrub, from the higher altitude forests of the Border Ranges. I usually hear my first “walk-to-work” in early April, about half an hour after full dark when they might call just two or three times. The evening currawong calls can prick your ears but they are usually too early, too often, and never quite the ‘walk-to-work’. To read more about Noisy Pittas go to Birdlife. If you wish to see where they’ve been recorded, or to report your sighting, go to the Atlas of Living Australia.

Like so much of our rainforest flora and fauna, Noisy Pittas suffered from the clearing of the forest. They were doubly persecuted as hat-feather collectors and taxidermists prized the birds, first called Dragoon Birds after the brightly uniformed type of cavalry called dragoons.

In 1877, just 37 short years after the arrival of Europeans, B. Moorcroft lamented in a letter to the Northern Star that four collectors had only “4 Rifles, 65 Regents, 1 Lyre, 30 Dragoons, 3 Pink-headed doves, 300 other birds, and 400 Parrots’ wings for the London market” after a years shooting and that “they’ left the district in disgust”. The following week, A Bird Fancier replied, decrying Moorcroft’s bushcraft, saying that he knew of a man who took “97 Regents, 64 Rifles, 6 Lyre, Dragoons too common to shoot except a choice one” and that in just two months he’d shoot “500 choice birds”. Evidently, a “bird fancier” didn’t mean the same thing then as it does today!

Within a few decades the Big Scrub was cleared to less than 1% of its former size so that, in 1932, the Tweed Daily reported, “The ground bird, with its coat of many colors, the Noisy Pitta, also known as the Dragoon Bird, has long since passed away from the sight of Tweed people. In the early days it was common here; its diet of worms, snails and ants kept it earthbound and so it became an easy victim to ruthless guns and rifles, its bright colours making of it an easy target.”

Not a target, nor common, but I’ve been privileged to see my unicorn in my Big Scrub forest. I’ve seen the flash of red through the trees, a pair scratching in the leaf-litter at my feet and I’ve heard their goodnight calls. I hope you get to see one too.

Thank you to Ken Dorey for contributing this story.