also known as Leather head, Knobby-nose Leather head, Four o’clock Pimlico, Poor Soldier)
By Danielle Davis
Images by Sharon McGrigor
The tonsured head of this big honey eater gives the friar birds their name, with the Noisy Friar bird having the baldest head of all which includes their upper neck as well. (“tonsure” the shaving of the crown, or whole head, on admission to the priesthood, a monastic order or holy order.) All the other hob-billed friar birds have partly feathered heads. They also have a strong curved bill/beak with a prominent casque (bump) at the base and they are very noisy!
Found in coastal regions of our mainland from Cape York all the way down to south eastern Victoria, they can also be found in southern New Guinea. They prefer open dry forests and open eucalypt woodlands, as well as coastal scrub, heath lands, around wetlands and wet forests, and are found in most climate zones, extending into arid areas along rivers. They survive well in planted native flowering urban situations. During spring and summer the forests, woodlands and urban areas buzzing all day long to the sound of this large arboreal honey eater chuckling, cackling and bubbling as it calls and sings up in the branches of flowering trees.
Locally nomadic in the north, the southern birds are partial migratory, shifting off mountain tops to low altitudes and traveling as far north as central eastern Queensland in March – April in search of better feeding sites to returning south in August- September to breed. They move north in small loose groups of up to 30 – 40 bird, flying straight and high, often well over the tops of trees. On their return they trickle south in ones and twos through forest and woodlands.
Sexes look similar, male slightly larger, with their distinct bare black skinned, featherless head and upper neck, (like a mask effect), small black triangular knob at base of upper mandible, narrow line of grey-brown feathering over eye (eyebrow), triangle of silver-grey feathering on chin. Back, rump, shoulders, backs of wings, tail, all fawn brown-mid grey, square ended tail, lower throat and upper breast a ruff of lanceolate silvery-white feathers with dark shafts, lower breast to under tail pale fawn, eye strong red, feet dusky grey, 3 toes forward, one backward.
Their call to locate and establish position is a rolling, double-note chant, at feeding times it is more harsh and crackling, in pursuit loud and brassy. Their song is rippling, chuckling cackles, often in duet or antiphonally between sexes at set perches, voice of female higher pitched.
Noisy Friar birds are versatile feeders, and will eat nectar, insects and fruit – including grapes, blackberries and even syrup that oozes from sugar cane after it has been burnt and these birds have on occasion been illegally shot by farmers when they feed in late summer in stone-fruit orchards.
They are noisy, boisterous and aggressive at feeding sites, each bird defending its own branches, chasing off competitors and calling out loudly in a cacophony of sound. All feeding is arboreal and their dexterous feet and claws allow them to hang upside down to probe their long hooked beak into flowers for nectar, they especially love Callistermon, Grevillea and Eucalypt flowers and will also hawk for insects catching them on the wing, only occasionally coming to the ground. They have been known to take small invertebrates and very small eggs. They will feed side by side with other honey eaters such as Red Wattle birds if there is plenty to go around.
Groups spread out to roost at night, individuals not paired, sleeping alone in tree crowns and signaling their position to one another crepuscularly, in twilight at dusk and dawn, with a repeated rolling ya-kob call.
Noisy Friar birds form long-term pairs, with both parents defending the nest and surrounds. Breeding time is July – February when a large deep, open cup nest is made of narrow strips of stringy bark interwoven with dry grasses, cobweb, stems and then lined with even finer softer grasses, built in outer branches and camouflaged in thick foliage up to 20 metes above the ground, occasionally in lower saplings. The female alone incubates usually 2-3, but up to 5, small light-dark pink marble spotted oval eggs. Both parents raise the chicks until they fledge and are ready to leave the nest, but will often stay with the parents or with their group.
Although these unique looking birds are not threatened, planting flowering Australian Native trees, bushes and shrubs in your garden can help them live and survive for us to enjoy.