Helen McKerralCritters

After reading another blogger’s experience with deer, I thought I’d blog about my local wildlife, especially for overseas readers. As for all continents and

Koala in my melaleuca tree – not native to this area but I like having them around

large islands, Australia’s wildlife is unique… but, to mangle Orwell, some animals are more unique than others! Our wildlife is amazingly unique and much of it co-exists with us even in our cities and suburbs. Ringtail and brushtailed possums happily take up residence in tree hollows and (less happily) in roof spaces, koalas drowse in back yard trees, kookaburras cackle maniacally in city parklands, and magpies squabble on lawns. Even in our country’s capital city, Canberra, huge mobs of kangaroos share public parks and private gardens with residents.

We have our share of pests, too. Rabbits, cats and foxes have devastated many native animal populations through competition and predation, while native animals relocated to areas outside of their natural range often replace local species. For example, a handful of koalas introduced to my state’s Kangaroo Island multiplied sufficiently (at one stage to over 20,000) to decimate certain native eucalypts. This leaves less habitat for the endemic fauna that depends on those same trees – particularly ironic because the endemic understorey is amongst the most diverse and healthy in the state due to the absence of rabbits on the island.

Koalas sleep by day but can be very noisy at night

Originating from just a few individuals, the koala population is genetically inbred – another strike against it. Consultant ecologists recommended culling the koalas but (unfortunately, in my opinion) this is so politically unpalatable that it was never going to happen: koalas are just too cute and fluffy. Instead, the government spent millions on sterilisation and/or relocation to the mainland, both of which are extremely cost inefficient and far more traumatising to individual animals (relocated Kangaroo Island koalas often die).

In any case, an HIV-like retrovirus has been spreading amongst island koalas; when population numbers rise and competition increases stress on the animals, they are more vulnerable to the effects of the disease. So hopefully nature will take care of the population problem, as she so often does.

Koala ‘burglar’ in my carport!

Koalas have also been introduced to the Adelaide Hills, where I understand there is no historical record of them existing previously. Many of the animals are similarly inbred, but there are more predators and a larger area for them to range, so their impact is reduced. Koalas occasionally waddle past my lounge room window during the day, nap in my trees, or grunt loudly enough to wake me at night. Sometimes, they sound like burglars in my carport. They also nap in my evergreen alder and, in a melaleuca, a joey was munching on these unlikely leaves. Even though it’s ecologically unsound, I admit that I like having koalas here.

Ringtail possums might look small but make a din playing on the roof

Using a spotlight at night, I can always find ringtailed and/or brushtailed possums staring back at me from my trees. They’re fun, albeit noisy as elephants when they play on my roof in the wee hours!

I was thrilled to see a western grey kangaroo hop across the new area recently. It validated my decision to stick with wire ‘country’ fencing and low espaliers, rather than suburban corrugated iron, which not only creates a boxed-in ambience, but also obstructs wildlife corridors. In my old garden I’ve seen one yellow-footed antechinus – a mouse-sized, secretive, carnivorous marsupial – so they are likely still about, and southern brown bandicoots have also been recorded in my area – they shelter in blackberry thickets, so I expect many live nearby!

Kookaburras enjoy worms – and laughing

Birds include wrens, magpies, weebills and thornbills, currawongs, rosellas, wattle birds, – you name it. Less welcome are the flocks of rainbow lorikeets – another “introduced native” – that screech in the flame gums and drive away local, more reticent parrots.

Magpies have a wonderful, warbling song

When I was digging out the blackberries in early spring, a pair of kookaburras visited every day. They perched nearby and watched avidly as I exposed wireworms and earthworms. I’m sure that other gardeners had been feeding them too, because one bird was so tame that it often flew down and sat within a metre of my feet as I forked the soil, and it accepted wireworms from my hand – another thrill.

My amazing ‘Piccadilly’ worms can be 40cm long

Speaking of worms, my local ‘Piccadilly worms’ are quite special, too – I’ve seen them extended to about 40cm and, contracted, they’re as thick as my finger, so they’re not your average worm!

Noteworthy insects are cicadas, leaf beetles, and the gum tree skeletoniser. These caterpillars are the larval stage of a moth, and they gather in clusters while small before spreading over the tree. They’re covered in highly-irritant fine hairs to which I’m allergic – one caterpillar fell on my neck and the swelling didn’t abate for a week – but spraying even the young trees is pointless. These caterpillars completely defoliated some of my mature messmate stringybarks in spring and even killed some of the smaller ones; their numbers suggest some kind of imbalance, because native predators should be keeping them in check. I assume microbats would be one predator of moths so, this winter, rather than spraying, I’ll put up several bat boxes from a local supplier. Websites about encouraging bats, and those with instructions for making your own bat boxes include:

I’ll also hang some bird boxes for rosellas and kookaburras, but I suspect they’ll be gatecrashed by possums, bees and introduced parrots. We’ll see.

Rainbow lorikeets are pretty, but also noisy and aggressively territorial

Decades ago I excavated an on-site retention basin and drainage line in the front garden, and it’s now home to a number of different frogs. Frogs are environmental indicator species (think: canaries in mines), very vulnerable to pesticides. The retention basin absorbs excess runoff from almost the entire old block, so the presence of frogs is a positive sign of a healthy environment.

Last but not least, the reptiles. Most common are the shiny little yellow-bellied skinks, about 10cm long and7mm wide, very fast and, I’m sure, excellent pest controllers. There would be hundreds of them in my garden. I’ve never seen shingleback or bluetongue lizards in my shady old garden, but I’m hoping they’ll turn up in the sunnier new area. A common brown snake lived in our sleeper retaining wall many years ago. He didn’t bother me, although I made sure to make lots of noise when I was working in the area!

However, the dry stone retaining walls in my new block will probably be excellent habitat for snakes, which is slightly concerning; years ago my work at the Whyalla Fauna Park included feeding and handling snakes so I’m reasonably comfortable with having them around. Yes, many of my local snakes – black tiger, red-bellied black and common brown- are venomous, but their fangs are short so wearing shoes, socks and trousers protects your legs and, despite popular mythology, if you do the right thing when bitten, your prognosis is excellent (do the wrong thing, like chasing the snake or running for help, and things won’t go as well for you). Every keen Australian gardener in warm regions should understand how snake venom moves through the body, and know snake bite first aid: snake bite first aid & compression bandaging

You’re much more likely to be bitten by a spider – another good reason to always wear gardening gloves. First Aid treatment varies depending on the spider.

Watch out for Australia’s dreaded Drop Bear!

Stories about Australia’s venomous animals abound (hey, I haven’t even touched on Drop Bears [see the Australian Museum’s excellent reference] and Wheel Snakes yet!) but we’ve grown up with them and they’re as much a part of our culture as football and a certain brand of car. I’m lucky to be able to see so many birds and animals in my very own back yard, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

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