Australasian bittern known as the Bunyip bird
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.
IT DOESN’T LOOK particularly fierce, but this little bird’s ancestors just might be the root of one of the most eerie and lingering characters in Australian legend.
The Bunyip – our very own Yeti, the “spirit of darkness and the punisher of all wrong-doers“, a character to scare children into doing what they’re told – has for centuries been said to wander the swamps, billabongs, riverbeds and waterholes of the Australian bush to chow down on whomever stumbles across its path.
The Bunyip is a particularly special part of Australian culture, because it’s one of the only figures to cross over from Aboriginal Australian mythology to that of the early European settlers. Presumably the cacophony of strange and foreign noises made by our native animals convinced the Europeans that there was something ominous lurking nearby – an angry, supernatural beast with sharp teeth and soggy paws, perhaps.
And it’s those noises – those low, booming calls that echo through the night – that historians have used to link the Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) to the many tales of the fearsome and mighty Bunyip.
With a range that spans southeastern Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, New Caledonia and its little island province, Ouvea, the Australasian bittern – or ‘Bunyip bird’ – is a large member of the heron family.
Keeping close to the water’s edge in search of frogs, eels and freshwater crustaceans, it creates well-hidden nests among the thick wetland vegetation. During the breeding season, the males will call loudly to the females, earning its species the reputation of being more likely to be heard than seen.
Good news for the Bunyip bird
The Australasian bittern’s reliance on our dwindling wetland environments has seen its numbers fall so low, there are said to be fewer than 1000 mature individuals left in Australia, and a total of 2500 in existence worldwide. But last year, a significant number began turning up in the waterlogged rice paddies of Riverina in southwestern New South Wales – a move that has absolutely thrilled the scientists who are trying to conserve them.
“We’ve got this really interesting situation where an endangered species is very closely associated with farming,” Wildlife ecologist Matt Herring told Nick Fogarty at the ABC. “What we’re doing out there in…(the) Riverina by growing rice is basically creating artificial wetlands that are very much like those ones that they would’ve occurred in naturally.”
Having spearheaded a crowd-funding campaign that raised $65,000, Herring has set up the Bitterns in Rice Project, in which scientists and rice farmers can work together to provide a new habitat for the birds, and also carry out a long-term surveillance of their movements. For example, right now where the paddy-dwelling bitterns go after the rice is harvested remains a complete and utter mystery.
“It’s just awesome that they’re here, really awesome,” Coleambally region rice paddy owner Ian Payne told the ABC. “I just think it’s great that we can grow a food, a high quality food, and support an endangered species, it’s just fantastic.”