The defensive display of the bush stone-curlew. The native Australian bird is known as the 'screaming woman bird' because of its shrill call. Image Credit: Nick Talbot/flickr

Screaming woman? Nope, it's a bird

  • December 12, 2013

It might look demure, but the bush stone-curlew has a call that would make just about anyone's blood run cold.

Contributor
Bec Crew

Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.

Gangly yet impossibly graceful, the bush stone-curlew (Burhinus grallarius) is a nocturnal, ground-dwelling bird that makes its home in Australia's open forests, grasslands, mangroves and salt marshes.

Once widespread, the species is now rare in most regions of the country, thriving in just a few areas in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Kangaroo Island. By night it feeds on a selection of prey including insects, crabs, lizards and small mammals, and by day it hides among the tall grasses and shrubs, folding its slender legs up under itself as it rests.

It might look demure, but the bush stone-curlew has a call that would make just about anyone's blood run cold. Nicknamed the 'screaming woman bird', their high-pitched, drawn-out shrieks can be heard across the night as they try to contact each other. This eerie behaviour could explain why the species is thought to have close associations with death and suicide in some indigenous Australian cultures.

Once a bush stone-curlew finds a mate, this bond remains throughout their lifetime, which can last up to 30 years. This means that courtship behaviours are rarely observed, but it's believed that a complex dance and call are performed, and sometimes in the air. Whatever they do, it must be pretty impressive, because the behaviour has been described be observers as a 'whistling concert' or 'glee-party'.

During breeding season, the bush stone-curlew will become particularly territorial, even with its own kind, and will try to ward off its competition with that powerful cry. It will also puff up its chest and spread its wings in an aggressive display to appear larger and more formidable.

Its response to a predator, however, is almost the exact opposite. If it catches wind of a fox, dingo or goanna nearby, the bush stone-curlew will freeze, dead-still, often committing itself to the strangest and most awkward of poses.

Hear the 'screaming' call here: