Australian Predators of the Sky
Australia's magnificient birds of prey have been both reviled and admired since colonisation
31 August 2015
As often happens, too late and in researching an entirely different subject, I happened upon the perfect illustration for my new book, Australian Predators of the Sky. The image was titled ‘The Queen's Visit to the South Australian Court ...' and it made an attention-grabbing cover of the last issue of The Illustrated London News for May 1886. The accompanying text claimed that Queen Victoria was among the many who enjoyed ‘the realistic scene on the banks of the Murray River', created for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, in London.
Front page of The London Illustrated News, May 1886
The diorama was set among displays of minerals, timber and the busts of explorers, and was festooned with taxidermied animals. Against a painted backdrop, parakeets cavort, pelicans catch fish and, as the accompanying text states, ‘an eagle has just snatched up a kangaroo kid, and is bearing off his prey to a nest of eager eaglets'.
In Predators, I pointed to the dichotomy of attitudes towards birds of prey: at once admired and reviled. The day-active raptors are admired for their powers of flight and sight, and reviled for their depredations on livestock or garden birds. Their nocturnal counterparts, the owls, are either wise or harbingers of death. We may no longer be superstitious about owls, but old prejudices against eagles, falcons and goshawks are alive and well in certain sectors. The rest of us are enthusiasts, for birds of prey are magnificent animals. They include the fastest animal on earth—the Peregrine Falcon—and some of the most effortless and highest of fliers. They are full of interest and come in great variety. Some of the owls can hunt in absolute darkness and one of the day-active birds of prey, the Letter-winged Kite, has become nocturnal. Some can see in the ultraviolet range, unavailable to humans. So, kestrels, for example, can detect the UV-visible urine trails of their rodent prey. In Predators, I could only touch on some of these wonders.
Returning to my newly discovered nineteenth-century woodcut, close inspection revealed that the eagle was making off not with a kangaroo, but a cloven-hooved animal and one of economic value—a sheep. In fact, the diorama showed the negative side, the demonisation of eagles; predators as an excuse for poor production: ‘the eagle/dingo/thylacine stole my lambs'.
Modern research shows that the Wedge-tailed Eagle rarely kills viable lambs, nor could an eagle carry a sheep. In life, the strung-up eagle would have had a body mass of only 3–4 kg. At weaning (3 months old), the weight of a Merino sheep is 20 kg. The feat, as depicted in the exhibit, is a physical impossibility! I like to think that is why Victoria is not looking particularly amused.