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Are Noisy Miners becoming more game with humans?

Noisy Miners Manorina melanocephala are one of the most common passerines in metropolitan centres in south-eastern Australia (Barth et al. 2015). As a result, few days have passed without my seeing or hearing at least one. They are reputed for their tendency to mob other animals larger than themselves in a flock or singly (Barati et al. 2016; Val et al. 2018; Fig. 1). These behaviours are often combined with their distinctive vocalisations (Kennedy et al. 2009), which easily attract attention. I've watched Noisy Miners repeatedly charge into the backs of roosting Powerful Owls Ninox strenua (Mo et al. 2016b) and mob adult Lace Monitors Varanus varius descending tree trunks toward their nests (Mo 2019). Both are known predators of the birds (Mo and Waterhouse 2015; Mo et al. 2016a).

In my casual observations of Noisy Miners, watching them mob birds and other animals has been common. However, observations of aggressive swooping towards humans are rare. Generally, they perch on branches and vocalise intensely when humans stray close to their nests. In November 2013, I was surprised to find a Noisy Miner in North Parramatta, NSW, appearing to follow me down the street, flying from branch to branch while making its characteristic mobbing call. It continued over a distance of at least 20 m before swooping at me from in front. I estimate it came within 5 m of me, which prompted me to search for a nest. I didn't find one, but it was possibly hidden in the thick canopy of an ornamental street tree.

For five years I didn't make any comparable observations. In September 2018 I was photographing wildlife in the EG Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens, Caringbah South, NSW, when Noisy Miners were feeding nearby. As I meandered through the gardens, I reached a location where the birds' mobbing calls became increasingly erratic. I was standing close to a low bush when the increase in mobbing calls alerted me to a nest, which was no more than 2 m from the ground. At least five Noisy Miners descended in the branches around me and vocalised. A pair of them then began to swoop at me, to within 20 cm. This happened seven times before I decided to move on. They may have swooped a few more times while I moved away. The last swoop they made occurred more than 20 m from the nest. During this event, I noticed the bird approaching when I turned around to see how far I was from the original position.

In April 2019, I revisited this site and heard the Noisy Miners becoming more vocal near the same bush. The nest from the previous year showed signs of deterioration and was not being used. Three metres away, Noisy Miners were returning to feed chicks at an active nest (Fig. 2). As I approached, both birds swooped me to within 20 cm. Sometimes they appeared to swoop almost in unison, with one bird swooping first and a second bird swooping as the first bird flew away. Most swoops were from behind or the side. When they swooped from behind, they made contact with my back and head at least six times.

In the same month, I noticed Noisy Miners during a walk around Darling Harbour, Sydney central business district. One bird quietly swooped a person in front of me from behind. The swoop appeared to be within approximately 10 cm of the person's head; however, this was apparently unnoticed. The bird flew on to an overhanging branch, at which time it started to vocalise. It held this position for two minutes as I stood still, watching it. The bird then left the perch and swooped at me from the front. At the closest distance, the bird may have been 20 cm from my head. I looked around for a nest but didn't find one, and attracted no further attention from the bird.

Despite regularly seeing Noisy Miners, until 2013 I had never observed them dive-bombing people. Moreover, I didn't see this behaviour repeated until recently. This raises the question whether the birds' continuing habituation to metropolitan centres has led to some individuals attempting closer contact when mobbing. Undoubtedly, Noisy Miners vary in their approachability, depending on location. In most places, Noisy Miners will merely approach people offering handouts from a distance. However, where people regularly feed waterfowl and other birds, given the chance Noisy Miners often take food from the hand. Certainly, all the locations reported here fall into this latter category. However, I have visited these locations over many years and have not seen Noisy Miners swooping people there until recently.

References

Barati A, Etezadifar F and McDonald PG (2016) Fragmentation in eucalypt woodlands promotes nest-tree occupancy by a despotic species, the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala). Austral Ecology 41, 897-905.

Barth BJ, FitzGibbon SI and Wilson RS (2015) New urban developments that retain more remnant trees have greater bird diversity. Landscape and Urban Planning 136, 122-129.

Kennedy RAW, Evans CS and McDonald PG (2009) Individual distinctiveness in the mobbing call of a cooperative bird, the Noisy Miner Manorina melanocephala. Journal of Avian Biology 40, 481-490.

Mo M (2019) Seasonality and frequency of snake and goanna incursions on an Australian agricultural institute and the attitudes of staff toward coexistence. IRCF Reptiles and Amphibians 26, 16-20.

Mo M and Waterhouse DR (2015) Development of independence in Powerful Owl Ninox strenua fledglings in suburban Sydney. Australian Field Ornithology 32, 143-153.

Mo M, Hayler P, Waterhouse DR and Hayler A (2016a) Observations of hunting attacks by the Powerful Owl Ninox strenua and an examination of search and attack techniques. Australian Zoologist 38, 52-58.

Mo M, Waterhouse DR, Hayler P and Hayler A (2016b) Observations of mobbing and other agonistic responses to the Powerful Owl Ninox strenua. Australian Zoologist 38, 43-51.

Val J, Eldridge DJ, Travers SK and Oliver I (2018) Livestock grazing reinforces the competitive exclusion of smallbodied birds by large aggressive birds. Journal of Applied Ecology 55, 1919-1929.

Matthew Mo

Email: matthew.sk.mo@gmail.com
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Title Annotation:Naturalist Note
Author:Mo, Matthew
Publication:The Victorian Naturalist
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2019
Words:1002
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