The Australian butcherbirds are a genus (Cracticus) of striking and aggressive passerine predators, so it is hardly surprising that when they were first discovered they were placed with the shrikes familiar to Europeans. The genus includes six medium sized butcherbirds and the much larger and terrestrial Australian Magpie (formerly assigned its own genus), and are found across Australia and New Guinea. They all typically have some combination of black, grey and white plumage and heavy blueish grey bills.

Visitors to Sydney will be familiar with the Australian Magpie and the Grey Butcherbird, but it wasn’t until I went to Queensland that I got to meet the Black Butcherbird. The species is typical of many northern Queensland specialities, being common across New Guinea and just occurring in Queensland (and in the case of the Black Butcherbird, the fringes of the Northern territory as well). Like its sibling species it generally feeds on invertebrates and small vertebrates, generally in the understory but sometimes on the ground. It didn’t take me very long to find one either, in fact I found a pair on my first day. I was walking through the Cairns Botanical Gardens when close to the road I found a pair of them killing a snake on the ground. This was actually a stroke of luck, as Black Butcherbirds while common, are shy and can be hard to see. This pair were far too preoccupied with the snake they were killing to be interested in me, which allowed me to sneak up very close to them and take some photos.

Black Butcherbird (Cracticus quoyi)

Hammering the head


I watched them for a while, and am fairly sure the snake was dead very quickly (it may have been dead when I arrived). But the Black Butcherbirds were pretty suspicious and would regard the snake critically before hammering it again. I think that perhaps one of the birds would hit the snake, causing it to twitch, which would make the other think there was some life left in it. I am not sure what kind of snake it was but I think it was a harmless python.

My other encounter with a Black Butcherbird was at Cassowary House, the location I had my rather exciting encounter with a cassowary. I’ll do a post on the place one day soon, but one of the nice features is the veranda on which you can sit with a cup of tea and watch various birds come down to the feeders. And one of the regular visitors, enticed with pieces of cheese of all things, is a Black Butcherbird.

Watching me before swooping down

Cheesy treats

VBirders visiting new regions don’t always understand the significance of what they see, and this case illustrates it perfectly. Although it was very cool to see a pair of birds beating on a snake, I had no idea that the species was a shy one that would normally just afford quick views. It’s nice that along with nemesis birds there are birds that go out of their way to give you a good look.


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Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.