Monday, February 28, 2011

The Tongue of the Noisy Miner

No, it's not a dirty old folk song—it's a bird:

The Noisy Miner is a bold and curious bird. It is identified by its mostly grey body and black crown and cheeks. The bill is yellow, as are the legs and the naked skin behind the eye. The name is well suited as the common calls are uttered repeatedly by the members of the colony.
These birds are about the size of robins, are all over eastern Australia, and are the most commonly seen bird around our home in Collaroy. But for all the times I've seen them, there was something I didn't know about them until the other day, when one landed on the veranda where I was sitting, and began hopping around our potted grevillea. Here's a photo Christine took of one on said plant (click and click again for real closeup):

It started sticking its beak into every flower on the plant, and appeared to be drinking nectar from them, like a hummingbird. I don't know if I've ever seen a bird other than a hummingbird do that. Well, turns out it was drinking the nectar. The noisy miner is a honeyeater:
The honeyeaters are a large and diverse family of small to medium sized birds most common in Australia and New Guinea, but also found in New Zealand, the Pacific islands as far east as Samoa and Tonga, and the islands to the north and west of New Guinea known as Wallacea. Bali, on the other side of the Wallace Line, has a single species.
Honeyeaters live on a variety of foods, such as fruits, seeds, and insects, but they are characterized by the fact that they all eat flower nectar. And like other nectar-eaters, such as bees, honeyeaters are in fact responsible for pollinating many types of plants. A cool thing about this is that flowers so-pollinated have developed special adaptions that both attract the birds and make it easy for them to access their nectar. These are ornithophilous—literally "bird-loving"—flowers. They usually brightly colored, often red, as sight is obviously highly developed in birds; they're often odorless, as birds are not good smellers; they produce a lot of nectar; and have cavities which hold enough nectar to make it worth a bird's while to feed on it. Characteristics all found in our grevillea—which will continue to attract miners for us. (This is all part of the larger and very fascinating story of pollination syndrome, I'm just learning. I'll have to look into that more in the future!)

The birds have developed their own adaptations, as well. Honeyeaters have curved beaks, often very long, and long, extendable, brush-tipped tongues that are good for lapping up nectar. And some have developed the ability to hover, like the hummingbirds, which makes feeding on flower nectar a lot easier. But alas, not the honeyeater. He jumps and flops around on our grevillea like he might be trying to kill it, but always ends up getting what he's after.

 Miners are called "miners" because early settlers thought they looked like a bird known from Asia, the myna, that name coming from a Hindi word. Myna's are not related to miners, and are a huge problem in Australia: these very aggressive birds—they're in the starling family—were introduced here in the mid-1800s (by idiots) to fight insects, and have since taken over huge areas once occupied by many other bird species.

• I've also just learned another fascinating thing: Although hummingbirds are very similar to honeyeaters (and to the other type of nectar-eating birds, the sunbirds), right down to their brush-tipped tongues—they are not related. They are in fact classic examples of convergent evolution. Nature so demanded they exist that they made extras.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing. Such beautiful creatures right outside your door. I feel similarly about our local wildlife, but ours are not so exotic, at least to me, or as colorful and strange!

  2. Hey Thom...a more focused miner than uncle terry!

  3. Ha! Funny, George.

    Yeah, Gene, but they are just as exotic. Having the skunks, then foxes, then raccoons have babies underneath my home office - good god, I felt like one of the luckiest humans on earth. And I once reached into a stream where I knew there were giant salamanders - and came back up with a giant salamander in my hand. THAT is an exotic creature. (I actually have video of that. I'lll have to find that.)