Let me introduce……the Wonga pigeon. The name derives from wonga-wonga, an Aboriginal name inspired by their call. Mind you, I would describe it as a gentle ‘whoop whoop.’ Gentle, yes, but it can be heard more than a kilometre away.
I live in Blackheath, in the beautiful Blue Mountains. I often wake to this ‘cooing hymn’. Our resident male Wonga has a favourite morning perch on a wooden seat outside my bedroom window. See how markings on the breast resemble a football jumper? Aussie Rules footy of course. (An English friend just commented that it looks more like braces holding up britches.)
Sometimes he even sits down.
As you can see, these native Australian birds have a very small head and a large body, especially when they puff themselves up. They spend most of their time feeding on the ground, following well worn routes. It’s hard to get close to them though, because they can walk faster than an Olympian. If you start to gain ground on one it will suddenly take to the air, rather like a flying feather pillow.
They are monogamous and the male helps incubate the eggs, usually only two. The nest is a platform of twigs, high in a tree. Unfortunately I have no photo, as I’ve never managed to spot one. Recently I came across a report of a parent bird deliberately tumbling from a tree and playing dead by rolling down a hill. It was a clever attempt to distract attention from its nest.
Did you know that pigeons and doves are able to drink just like us? Instead of having to raise their heads and let water trickle down their throats they can suck it up and swallow!
WONGA PIGEONS IN THE POT
I’m sure Aborigines hunted Wonga pigeons, but life became even more difficult for the birds after white settlement. Here is a sad little tale;
A quail was complaining that he was hunted and punished for stealing grain. As he was finishing, a beautiful grey Wonga Pigeon flew down beside him and said: “The Quail is wrong when he thinks man punishes him for the mischief he does. It is because his flesh is so good to eat that man kills him so cruelly. Oh, it is a dreadful thing to be good to eat. He kills me just in the same way,” and the Wonga Pigeon moaned sadly and sang:
Oh, oh, oh, oh!
Man is my foe.
He treats me most cruelly,
Wherever I go.
He says that my meat,
Is deliciously sweet,
So he kills and cooks me,
And calls it a treat.
It was all too true. The flesh, described as being as white as chicken , was highly prized. It was popular throughout the 19th century, and also during the Great Depression. I live in the Blue Mountains, and was intrigued to find the following local recipe. It was sent to a newspaper by Mrs Stevens from Katoomba, in 1932.
BAKED WONGA PIGEONS
Required: 3 Wonga pigeons, 1/4 lb butter, 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, juice of 2 lemons, pinch salt and cayenne.
Method: Pluck and clean birds and dredge them with flour, pepper and salt, rubbing it in well. Make a stuffing with part of the butter, breadcrumbs, parsley, salt and pepper, and fill the birds. Beat lemon juice with butter, allowing it to become creamy. Place pigeons in a baking dish, cover with the lemon and butter mixture, and bake in a quick oven for 1 hour.
Oh my, that does sound tempting Mrs Stevens (only joking).
A Mr George James from Sydney once wrote an article for The Australian Woman’s Weekly about camp cooking featuring Wonga pigeons. Out bush with friends one day George came across a pumpkin, growing by a creek. How it got there was a mystery, but he decided to make use of it, along with a couple of plump Wongas. When they set up camp that evening he decided to give his friends a culinary treat;
‘I set about cooking an unusual dinner. I dug the fire out deeper and lit a fresh fire with timber to make a bed of coals. Then I cut out a circle in the top of the pumpkin and scraped out all the seeds and some of the flesh, making a cavity as big as a large saucepan.
It took the two pigeons comfortably. I added onions, carrots, salt and pepper, filled it two thirds with water and put the top of the pumpkin back on for a lid.’
He then made a damper and put some potatoes in to roast on the coals. A couple of hours later and the feast was ready. He gently slid a shovel under the pumpkin and carried it to a convenient ‘dining table’ stump. His guests looked on as he sliced the pumpkin in half and released a wonderful aroma.
‘All was cooked to perfection and the juices of the birds had soaked into the pumpkin, which I divided into four, so that everyone would have an equal share. …half a pigeon resting against a quarter of the pumpkin and served with the potatoes, carrots and onions. The birds had fed on some tree that gave the flesh a taste like a slight blending of herbs, just enough to be tantalizing.
I sat back and lapped up the praise.’
All I can say it that it’s no wonder the Wonga is so elusive. Of course it’s now illegal to hunt them, but that fear of ending up in a pan (or a pumpkin) has been imprinted in their DNA. Just as well, because they often fall victim to foxes.
Autumn brings a bit of a problem for the Wonga; leaves in the birdbath. I don’t know why, but this shallow dish is our resident bird’s favourite drinking spot. He is not at all happy if I don’t keep it pristine;
UPDATE – While we were pruning a high tree in September we spotted a Wonga’s nest nearby. And soon, there were two chicks.
Let me introduce the newly fledged twins, Dee and Bert. They sit quietly in a ‘nursery’ most of the day, except for a little toddle about. The parent visit regularly to feed them regurgitated pigeon milk.
At dusk, the parents take them up to the safety of a tree branch. Not always a very substantial one.
Here is another story about Aussie birds and our social history. The Satin Bowerbird
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