Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Peeps at Many Lands: Australia
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo


The kangaroo — The koala — The bulldog ant — Some quaint and delightful birds — The kookaburra — Cunning crows and cockatoo.

Australia has most curious animals, birds, and flowers. This is due to the fact that it is such an old, old place, and has been cut off so long from the rest of the world. The types of animals that lived in Europe long before Rome was built, before the days, indeed, of the Egyptian civilization, animals of which we find traces in the fossils of very remote periods — those are the types living in Australia to-day. They belong to the same epoch as the mammoth and the great flying lizards and other creatures of whom you may learn something in museums. Indeed, Australia, as regards its fauna, may be considered as a museum, with the animals of old times alive instead of in skeleton form.

The kangaroo is always taken as a type of Australian animal life. When an Australian cricket team succeeds in vanquishing in a Test Match an English one (which happens now and again), the comic papers may be always expected to print a picture of a lion looking sad and sorry, and a kangaroo proudly elate. The kangaroo, like practically all Australian animals, is a marsupial, carrying its young about in a pouch after their birth until they reach maturity. The kangaroo’s forelegs are very small; its hind legs and its tail are immensely powerful, and these it uses for progression, rushing with huge hops over the country. There are very many animals which may be grouped as kangaroos, from the tiny kangaroo rat, about the size of an English water-rat, to the huge red kangaroo, which is over six feet high and about the weight of a sucking calf. The kangaroo is harmless and inoffensive as a rule, but it can inflict a dangerous kick with its hind legs, and when pursued by dogs or men and cornered, the “old man” kangaroo will sometimes fight for its life. Its method is to take a stand in a water-hole or with its back to a tree, standing on its hind legs and balanced on its tail. When a dog approaches it is seized in the kangaroo’s forearms and held under water or torn to pieces. Occasionally men’s lives have been lost through approaching incautiously an old man kangaroo.

The kangaroo’s method of self-defence has been turned to amusing account by circus-proprietors. The “boxing kangaroo” was at one time quite a common feature at circuses and music-halls. A tame kangaroo would have its forefeet fitted with boxing-gloves. Then when lightly punched by its trainer, it would, quite naturally, imitate the movements of the boxer, fending off blows and hitting out with its forelegs. One boxing kangaroo I had a bout with was quite a clever pugilist. It was very difficult to hit the animal, and its return blows were hard and well directed.

The different sorts of kangaroo you may like to know. There is the kangaroo rat, very small; the “flying kangaroo,” a rare animal of the squirrel species, but marsupial, which lives in trees; the wallaby, the wallaroo, the paddy-melon (medium varieties of kangaroo); the grey and the red kangaroo, the last the biggest and finest of the species.

The kangaroo, as I have said, is not of much use for meat. Its flesh is very dark and rank, something like that of a horse. However, chopped up into a fine sausage-meat, with half its weight of fat bacon, kangaroo flesh is just eatable. The tail makes a very rich soup. The skin of the kangaroo provides a soft and pliant leather which is excellent for shoes. Kangaroo furs are also of value for rugs and overcoats.

The Australian forest at night - "mooning" Opossums.

Of tree-inhabiting animals the chief in Australia is the ’possum (which is not really an opossum, but is somewhat like that American rodent, and so got its name), and the koala, or native bear. Why this little animal was called a “bear” it is hard to say, for it is not in the least like a bear. It is about the size of a very large and fat cat, is covered with a very thick, soft fur, and its face is shaped rather like that of an owl, with big saucer-eyes.

The koala is the quaintest little creature imaginable. It is quite harmless, and only asks to be let alone and allowed to browse on gum-leaves. Its flesh is uneatable except by an aboriginal or a victim to famine. Its fur is difficult to manipulate, as it will not lie flat, so the koala should have been left in peace. But its confiding and somewhat stupid nature, and the senseless desire of small boys and “children of larger growth” to kill something wild just for the sake of killing, has led to the koala being almost exterminated in many places. Now it is protected by the law, and may get back in time to its old numbers. I hope so. There is no more amusing or pretty sight than that of a mother koala climbing sedately along a gum-tree limb, its young ones riding on it pick-a-back, their claws dug firmly into its soft fur.

The ’possum is much hunted for its fur. The small black ’possum found in Tasmania and in the mountainous districts is the most valuable, its fur being very close and fine. Dealers in skins will sometimes dye the grey ’possum’s skin black and trade it off as Tasmanian ’possum. It is a trick to beware of when buying furs. Bush lads catch the ’possum with snares. Finding a tree, the scratched bark of which tells that a ’possum family lives upstairs in one of its hollows, they fix a noose to the tree. The ’possum, coming down at night to feed or to drink, is caught in the noose. Another way of getting ’possum skins is to shoot the little creatures on moonlight nights. (The ’possum is nocturnal in its habits, and sleeps during the day.) When there is a good moon the ’possums may be seen as they sit on the boughs of the gum-trees, and brought down with a shot-gun.

Besides its human enemies, the ’possum has the ’goanna (of which more later) to contend with. The ’goanna — a most loathsome-looking lizard — can climb trees, and is very fond of raiding the ’possum’s home when the young are there. Between the men who want its coat and the ’goannas who want its young the ’possum is fast being exterminated.

Two other characteristic Australian animals you should know about. The wombat is like a very large pig; it lives underground, burrowing vast distances. The wombat is a great nuisance in districts where there are irrigation canals; its burrows weaken the banks of the water-channels, and cause collapses. The dugong is a sea mammal found on the north coast of Australia. It is said to be responsible for the idea of the mermaid. Rising out of the water, the dugong’s figure has some resemblance to that of a woman.

Then there is the bunyip — or, rather, there isn’t the bunyip, so far as we know as yet. The bunyip is the legendary animal of Australia. It is supposed to be of great size — as big as a bullock — and of terrible ferocity. The bunyip is represented as living in lakes and marshes, but it has never been seen by any trustworthy observer. The blacks believe profoundly in the bunyip, and white children, when very young, are scared with bunyip tales. There may have been once an animal answering to its description in Australia; if so, it does not seem to have survived.

In Tasmania, however, are found, though very rarely, two savage and carnivorous marsupials called the Tasmanian tiger and the Tasmanian devil. The tiger is almost as large as the female Bengal tiger, and has a few little stripes near its tail, from which fact it gets its name. The Tasmanian tiger will create fearful havoc if it gets among sheep, killing for the sheer lust of killing. At one time a price of £100 was put on the head of the Tasmanian tiger. As settlement progressed it became rarer and rarer, and I have not heard of one having been seen for some years. The Tasmanian devil is a marsupial somewhat akin to the wild cat, and of about the same size. It is very ferocious, and has been known to attack man, springing on him from a tree branch. The Tasmanian devil is likewise becoming very rare.

The existence of these two animals in Tasmania and not in Australia shows that that island has been a very long time separated from the mainland.

Australia is very well provided with serpents — rather too well provided — and the Bush child has to be careful in regard to putting his hand into rabbit burrows or walking barefoot, as there are several varieties of venomous snake. But the snakes are not at all the great danger that some imagine. You might live all your life in Australia and never see one; but in a few country parts it has been found necessary to enclose the homesteads on the stations with snake-proof wire-fencing, so as to make some place of safety in which young children may play. The most venomous of Australian snakes are the death-adder, fortunately a very sluggish variety; the tiger-snake, a most fierce serpent, which, unlike other snakes, will actually turn and pursue a man if it is wounded or angered; the black snake, a handsome creature with a vivid scarlet belly; and the whip-snake, a long, thin reptile, which may be easily mistaken for a bit of stick, and is sometimes picked up by children. But no Australian snake is as deadly as the Indian jungle snakes, and it is said that the bite of no Australian snake can cause death if the bite has been given through any cloth. So the only real danger is in walking through the Bush barefooted, or putting the hand into holes where snakes may be lurking.

Some of the non-venomous snakes of Australia are very handsome, the green tree-snake and the carpet-snake (a species of python) for examples. The carpet-snake is occasionally kept in the house or in the barn to destroy mice and other small vermin.

Lizards in great variety are found in Australia, the chief being one incorrectly called an iguana, which colloquial slang has changed to ’goanna. The ’goanna is an altogether repulsive creature. It feasts on carrion, on the eggs of birds, on birds themselves, on the young of any creature. Growing to a great size — I have seen one 9 feet long and as thick in the body as a small dog — the ’goanna looks very dangerous, and it will bite a man when cornered. Though not venomous in the strict sense of the word, the ’goanna’s bite generally causes a festering wound on account of the loathsome habits of the creature. The Jew-lizard and the devil-lizard are two other horrid-looking denizens of the Australian forest, but in their cases an evil character does not match an evil face, for they are quite harmless.

Spiders are common, but there is, so far as I know, only one dangerous one — a little black spider with a red spot on its back. Large spiders, called (incorrectly) tarantulas, credited by some with being poisonous, come into the houses. But they are really not in any way dangerous. I knew a man who used to keep tarantulas under his mosquito-nets so that they might devour any stray mosquitoes that got in. The example is hardly worth following. The Australian tarantula, though innocent of poison, is a horrible object, and would, I think, give you a bad fright if it flopped on to your face.

Australia is rich in ants. There is one specially vicious ant called the bulldog ant, because of its pluck. Try to kill the bulldog ant with a stick, and it will face you and try to bite back until the very last gasp, never thinking of running away. The bulldog ant has a liking for the careless picnicker, whom she — the male ant, like the male bee, is not a worker — bites with a fierce energy that suggests to the victim that his flesh is being torn with red-hot pincers. I have heard it said that but for the fact that Australia is so large an island, a great proportion of its population would by this time have been lost through bounding into the surrounding sea when bitten by bulldog ants. It is wise when out for a picnic in Australia to camp in some spot away from ant-beds, for the ant, being such an industrious creature, seems to take a malicious delight in spoiling the day for pleasure-seekers.

In one respect, the ant, unwillingly enough, contributes to the pleasure and amusement of the Australian people. In the dry country it would not be possible to keep grass lawns for tennis. But an excellent substitute has been found in the earth taken from ant-beds. This earth, which has been ground fine by the industrious little insects, makes a beautifully firm tennis-court.

It is not possible to leave the ant without mention of the termite, or white ant, which is very common and very mischievous in most parts of Australia. A colony of termites keeps its headquarters underground, and from these headquarters it sends out foraging expeditions to eat up all the wood in the neighbourhood. If you build a house in Australia, you must be very careful indeed that there is no possibility of the termites being able to get to its timbers. Otherwise the joists will be eaten, the floors eaten, even the furniture eaten, and one day everything that is made of wood in the house will collapse. All the mischief, too, will have been concealed until the last moment. A wooden beam will look to be quite sound when really its whole heart has been eaten out by the termites. Nowadays the whole area on which a house is to be raised is covered with cement or with asphalt, and care taken that no timber joists are allowed to touch the earth and thus give entry to the termites. Fortunately, these destructive insects cannot burrow through brick or stone.

In the Northern Territory there are everywhere gigantic mounds raised by these termites, long, narrow, high, and always pointing due north and south. You can tell infallibly the points of the compass from the mounds of this white ant, which has been called the “meridian termite.”

Australia has a wild bee of her own (of course, too, there are European bees introduced by apiarists, distilling splendid honey from the wild flowers of the continent). The aborigines had an ingenious way of finding the nests of the wild bee. They would catch a bee, preferably at some water-hole where the bees went to drink, and fix to its body a little bit of white down. The bee would be then released, and would fly straight for home, and the keen-eyed black would be able to follow its flight and discover the whereabouts of its hive — generally in the hollow of a tree. The Australian black, having found a hive, would kill the bees with smoke and then devour the whole nest, bees, honeycomb, and honey.

Australian birds are very numerous and very beautiful. The famous bird-of-paradise is found in several varieties in Papua and other islands along Australia’s northern coast. The bird-of-paradise was threatened with extinction on account of the demand for its plumes for women’s hats. So the Australian Government has recently passed legislation to protect this most beautiful of all birds, which on the tiniest of bodies carries such wonderful cascades of plumage, silver white in some cases, golden brown in others.

  A sheep drover.

Some very beautiful parrots flash through the Australian forest. It would not be possible to tell of all of them. The smallest, which is known as the grass parrakeet, or “the love-bird,” is about the size of a sparrow. I notice it in England carried around by gipsies and trained to pick out a card which “tells you your fortune.” From that tiny little green bird the range of parrots runs up to huge fowl with feathers of all the colours of the rainbow. There are two fine cockatoos also in Australia — the white with a yellow crest, and the black, which has a beautiful red lining to its sable wings. A flock of black cockatoos in flight gives an impression of a sunset cloud, its under surface shot with crimson.

Cockatoos can be very destructive to crops, especially to maize, so the farmers have declared war upon them. The birds seem to be able to hold their own pretty well in this campaign, for they are of wonderful cunning. When a crowd of cockatoos has designs on a farmer’s maize-patch, the leader seems to prospect the place thoroughly; he acts as though he were a general, providing a safe bivouac for an army; he sets sentinels on high trees commanding a view of all points of danger. Then the flock of cockatoos settles on the maize and gorges as fast as it can. If the farmer or his son tries to approach with a gun, a sentinel cockatoo gives warning and the whole flock clears out to a place of safety. As soon as the danger is over they come back to the feast.

Even more cunning is the Australian crow. It is a bird of prey and perhaps the best-hated bird in the world. An Australian bushman will travel a whole day to kill a crow. For he has, at the time when the sheep were lambing, or when, owing to drought, they were weak, seen the horrible cruelties of the crow. This evil bird will attack weak sheep and young lambs, tearing out their eyes and leaving them to perish miserably. There have even been terrible cases where men lost in the Bush and perishing of thirst have been attacked by crows and have been found still alive, but with their eyes gone.

It is no wonder that there is a deadly feud between man and crow. But the crow is so cunning as to be able to overmatch man’s superior strength. A crow knows when a man is carrying a gun, and will keep out of range then; if a man is without a gun the crow will let him approach quite near. One can never catch many crows in the same district with the same device; they seem to learn to avoid what is dangerous. Very rarely can they be poisoned, no matter how carefully the bait is prepared.

Bushmen tell all sorts of stories of the cunning of the crow. One is that of a man who suffered severely from a crow’s depredations on his chickens. He prepared a poisoned bait and noticed the bird take it, but not devour it; that crow carefully took the poisoned tit-bit and put it in front of the man’s favourite dog, which ate it, and was with difficulty saved from death! Another story is that of a man who thought to get within reach of a crow by taking out a gun, lying down under a tree, and pretending to be dead. True enough, the crow came up and hopped around, as if waiting for the man to move, and so to see if he were really dead. After awhile, the crow, to make quite sure, perched on a branch above the man’s head and dropped a piece of twig on to his face! It was at this stage that the man decided to be alive, and, taking up his gun, shot the crow.

There may be some exaggeration in the bushmen’s tales of the crow’s cunning, but there is quite enough of ascertained fact to show that the bird is as devilish in its ingenuity as in its cruelty. In most parts of Australia there is a reward paid for every dead crow brought into the police offices. Still, in spite of constant warfare, the bird holds its own, and very rarely indeed is its nest discovered — a signal proof of its precautions against the enmity of man.

To turn to a more pleasant type of feathered animal. On the whole, the most distinctly Australian bird is the kookaburra, or “laughing jackass.” (A picture of two kookaburras are at the beginning of this volume. They were drawn for me by a very clever Australian black-and-white artist, Mr. Norman Lindsay.) The kookaburra is about the size of an owl, of a mottled grey colour. Its sly, mocking eye prepares you for its note, which is like a laugh, partly sardonic, partly rollicking. The kookaburra seems to find much grim fun in this world, and is always disturbing the Bush quiet with its curious “laughter.” So near in sound to a harsh human laugh is the kookaburra’s call that there is no difficulty in persuading new chums that the bird is deliberately mocking them. The kookaburra has the reputation of killing snakes; it certainly is destructive to small vermin, so its life is held sacred in the Bush. And very well our kookaburra knows the fact. As he sits on a fence and watches you go past with a gun, he will now and again break out into his discordant “laugh” right in your face.

The Australian magpie, a black-and-white bird of the crow family, is also “protected,” as it feeds mainly on grubs and insects, which are nuisances to the farmer. The magpie has a very clear, well-sustained note, and to hear a group of them singing together in the early morning suggests a fine choir of boys’ voices. They will tell you in Australia that the young magpie is taught by its parents to “sing in tune” in these bird choirs, and is knocked off the fence at choir practice if it makes a mistake. You may believe this if you wish to. I don’t. But it certainly is a fact that a group of magpies will sing together very sweetly and harmoniously.

One could not exhaust the list of Australian birds in even a big book. But a few more call for mention. There is the emu, like an ostrich, but with coarse wiry hair. The emu does damage on the sheep-runs by breaking down the wire fences. (Some say the emu likes fencing wire as an article of diet; but that is an exaggeration founded on the fact that, like all great birds, it can and does eat nails, pebbles, and other hard substances, which lodge in its gizzard and help it to digest its food.) On account of its mischievous habit of breaking fences the emu is hunted down, and is now fast dwindling. In Tasmania it is altogether extinct. Another danger to its existence is that it lays a very handsome egg of a dark green colour. These eggs are sought out for ornaments, and the emu’s nest, built in the grass of the plain (for the emu cannot fly nor climb trees), is robbed wherever found.

The brush turkey of Australia is strange in that it does not take its family duties at all seriously. The bird does not hatch out its eggs by sitting on them, but builds a mound of decaying vegetation over the eggs, and leaves them to come out with the sun’s heat.

The brolga, or native companion, is a handsome Australian bird of the crane family. It is of a pretty grey colour, with red bill and red legs. The brolga has a taste for dancing; flocks of this bird may be seen solemnly going through quadrilles and lancers — of their own invention — on the plains.

Another strange Australian bird is called the bower-bird, because when a bower-bird wishes to go courting he builds in the Bush a little pavilion, and adorns it with all the gay, bright objects he can — bits of rag or metal, feathers from other birds, coloured stones and flowers. In this he sets himself to dancing until some lady bower-bird is attracted, and they set up housekeeping together. The bower-bird is credited with being responsible for the discovery of a couple of goldfields, the birds having picked up nuggets for their bowers, these, discovered by prospectors, telling that gold was near.

If the bower-bird wishes for wedding chimes to grace his picturesque mating, another bird will be able to gratify the wish — the bell-bird which haunts quiet, cool glens, and has a note like a bell, and yet more like the note of one of those strange hallowed gongs you hear from the groves of Eastern temples. Often riding through the wild Australian Bush you hear the chimes of distant bells, hear and wonder until you learn that the bell-bird makes the clear, sweet music.

One more note about Australian nature life. In the summer the woods are full of locusts (cicadæ), which jar the air with their harsh note. The locust season is always a busy one for the doctors. The Australian small boy loves to get a locust to carry in his pocket, and he has learned, by a little squeezing, to induce the unhappy insect to “strike up,” to the amusing interruption of school or home hours. Now, to get a locust it is necessary to climb a tree, and Australian trees are hard to climb and easy to fall out of. So there are many broken limbs during the locust season. They represent a quite proper penalty for a cruel and unpleasant habit.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.