This time on Birds of Australia with Hayley and Michael: The Tawny Frogmouth
Let’s get this out of the way first: tawny frogmouths are not owls. They’re nocturnal, yes, and carnivorous, but they’re not owls. Owls hunt with their fierce talons, while frogmouths have weak feet and mostly hunt using their beak. The closest family to the frogmouths is the nightjars, but really it’s best to think of them as a uniquely odd bunch of birds.
There are about 15 species of frogmouth worldwide, mostly found in India and south-east Asia, with the three largest species found in Australia and New Guinea. The tawny is by far the most common of these three species, found throughout the Australian continent (including Tassie) and able to co-exist reasonably well with people (we had a family that lived outside our window in suburban Brisbane, so I’m assuming this statement is true). Sadly they’re regularly killed on the roads, using headlights to hunt down insects without realising they’re attached to fast-moving cars.
Obviously, the best thing about tawny frogmouths is that they think they can convince you that they’re a stick. You’ll spot one, perched all bird-like on a branch and, as you approach it’ll gradually shift into full branch-mode. To be fair, they do an excellent impression, and their colour camouflage is so good that you can walk within a few metres of a whole family of them and never notice them, watching them strike their pose and then assume that they’ve basically managed to disappear right in front of your eyes is still pretty hilarious.
They eat all kinds of bugs – moths, spiders, beetles etc – as well as small frogs, lizards and mammals. They’ve mastered the laziest kind of hunting as well – during daylight hours they’ll sometimes sit camouflaged with their mouth open, snapping it shut when an insect stupidly flies in to check out some random tree branch. Score one for the frogmouths. When they’re feeling more active they hunt either on the wing, or by pouncing from their perch onto ground-dwelling goodies.
They’re big on family-values – mating for life and usually staying in a territory for a decade at a time. Families are often spotted all nestled up against each other, which is super cute, and presumably a good way to keep chicks safe from marauding raptors. They cope with the extreme heat by panting, and have the ability to regrow their tongue (although I’m not really sure what evil scientist figured this last factoid out).
They’re pretty much the perfect bird – common enough that most people will be able to see them, but rare enough that it’s always exciting, bizarre looking but cute, fierce but cuddly and in possession of the grumpiest glare in the bird kingdom. Five feathers out of five.
Initially I was just going to put together a bunch of pictures of tawny frogmouths, send them to Michael with the subject line “TOP THAT NERD” and leave it at that. Because have you SEEN a tawny frogmouth, they’re the most divinely bizarre and delightful creatures in the world! But I suppose I must SAY THINGS about the noble tawny frogmouth otherwise Steph will send me angry gifs.
THEY ARE NOT OWLS. I know, it looks like an owl, stares like an owl, makes weirdo hissing and whirring noises that you imagine an owl would get up to, but no, NOT OWL. Also you may sometimes hear them being referred to as ‘mopokes’ but that’s actually a common name for the southern boobook. It’s okay, both tawny frogmouths and boobooks have similar calls that can be mistaken for each other at night, the confusion is somewhat valid.
Tawny frogmouths are found across the Australian continent and Tasmania, anywhere that isn’t treeless desert or heavy rainforest, and you’re not going to mix them up with another bird by sight until you get up to Far North Queensland and they start hanging out with Papuan frogmouths and marbled frogmouths. They’ve adapted to living close to human habitation, so you’ll often spot them in urban areas if you have a sharp eye, because more often than not they’ve camouflaged themselves by sitting frozen like little jutting tree branches.
You’ll also have definitely heard them at night, and they may have FREAKED YOU OUT with their deep, near-constant “oom-oom-oom-oom” vocalisations. When they feel threatened they get hissy, squawk and clack their bills, like this juvenile here who is NOT KEEN AT ALL on that fellow attempting to move it from its water heater perch.
But obviously the very best thing about tawny frogmouths is how they look. THEY’RE ADORABLE NIGHTMARE BIRDS! They’re a third eyeballs, a third giant mouth that has no known end, and a third FLUFFY FEATHERY FLOOF. You just want to carry them around like clacking and squalling floofy babies and thrust them in the faces of people saying boring shit at you – “Yo your paleo diet sound terrible and filled with pseudo-science, LOOK INTO THE EYES OF MY BEAUTIFUL HELLBIRD” – and have it oom them into silence. I want to be the crazy bird lady barrelling into cafes demanding bugs for my bird son and to be followed by soothing hisses and clacks to the end of my days. Vote 1 Tawny Frogmouth, five feathers.
Bird: Tawny Frogmouth
Michael: 5 feathers
Hayley: 5 feathers