Pretty but shy: How to spot an evasive fruit dove
A personal contribution from Big Scrub Landcare member Ken Dorey.
Yesterday I heard the two deep, reverberating calls of a Wompoo Fruit-Dove. When the penny dropped I listened for a third call, but it never came, not did I spot its owner.
Why was I so excited? BirdLife Australia describes the Wompoo as distinct for its “large size, rich purple throat, chest and upper belly, and yellow lower belly”.
As the most common of the fruit doves and with a range from Wollongong to Cape York, you’d expect the Wompoo to be a regular sight in Big Scrub country, but they can be hard to spot. In NSW, the species is most common along the eastern slopes of the Great Dividing Range between the Queensland border and Richmond River. The Big Scrub Loop walking track is a great place to see them.
Amongst the settlers the Wompoo was known as the Green Pigeon, Purple-Breasted Pigeon or Bubblo Mary, and it wasn’t as highly valued as it is today.
In 1883 Dr C Hedley wrote, “On our way up to Lismore we had heard so much about the green pigeons that we were naturally anxious to have a day at them… at half-past nine one Friday morning we arrived at the shooting grounds. We soon learnt the haunts of the famous green pigeon. They feed on the fruit of the fig tree and white bark, and in moving about they knock the berries down, and when you hear these drop… I was fortunate enough to drop a splendid specimen of a green pigeon. This bird is about the size of an average pullet, and they are so fat that they frequently burst in striking the ground… during the day we killed 7 different varieties of pigeons.”
AJ Campbell, in 1892, wrote, “Among the feathered denizens of the Big Scrub scarcely anything more beautiful can be imagined than the various fruit pigeons… their colour, shape and form are simply exquisite, while the dainty flavour of their plump bodies is not to be surpassed. The largest, the magnificent fruit pigeon… my companion brings down a pair… when ready for the pot weighs about 1 1/2lb… at certain seasons they are very fat, especially during June and July, when the figs are ripest. Although we could always hear the hoarse, deep call of “Wallock-a-woo” in thick leafy bowers of the scrub, we rarely saw the birds except in the tamarind trees… we only found one nest that was subsequently deserted, probably on account of the scrub-falling in the vicinity.”
Habitat destruction and predation will lead to more than an abandoned nest. More despicable was the slaughter of pigeons for “sport”.
In 1953 the Wompoo, along with the Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove received legal protection. The declaration says, “These fruit-eating pigeons… once a feature of the wildlife of the bush… the spread of settlement, accompanied by the clearing of bushland, reduced the supply of natural fruits and berries on which they feed… their decline has been hastened by indiscriminate shooting until to-day they are not often seen and are in danger of extinction”.
Many would argue the Superb Fruit-Dove or Rose-Crowned Fruit-Dove, both of which are also threatened species of the Big Scrub, are even more striking than the Wompoo. To spot a Superb Fruit-Dove, look up as they stick high in the rainforest canopy. They’re a compact bird, with short rounded wings and a short tail. Also smaller than the Wompoo, Rose-Crowned Fruit-Dove is named for its deep pink cap or forehead. They prefer to eat black-purple fruits, so keep an eye out for trees fruiting in those shades.
My “almost” sighting of a Wompoo has a deep significance to me. Have a look at BSL’s logo – the emblematic bird of BSL is the Wompoo! We chose that bird because we believed that its return en masse to the Big Scrub would be symbolic of achieving our early mission statement of “preserving the Big Scrub and its magnificent biodiversity”.
We’ve worked for 30 years on that mission. The logo and the Wompoo should mean something to us all.