Me: Hello little logrunner, how are things with you?
Logrunner: (scratch, scratch)…oh…you talking to me?
Me: Yes, I’d like to know what it’s like to be a logrunner.
Logrunner: (cocks her head, looks at me with a big dark eye) Not sure if I’ve really thought about it. But I do spend a lot of my time scratching.
Me: For food?
Logrunner: Yes, there are all sorts of tasty treats hiding in the leaf-litter, if you know what to look for.
Me: Such as?
Logrunner: Well there’s lots of little hoppy things, you might call them springtails – they’re the little ones, and they’re actually a type of insect. The bigger hoppy things are called amphipods. And you might not straight-away think so, but they’re in the same clan as the blue crayfish that sometimes wanders through the forest.
Me: What do they taste like?
Logrunner: Sort of buggy. Hard to describe, since you probably don’t eat many bugs, and I don’t eat the stuff you eat. But there are plenty of other things to eat too.
Me: Such as?
Logrunner: Oh, earthworms – they’re pretty good; bush cockroaches; slaters – also in the crayfish clan; little snails; grubs. It can be a bit hard to know exactly what a grub will be later – they can turn into beetles or flies or moths or other things. And I don’t really care, to tell you the truth. When they’re grubs they all taste pretty good – fatty and creamy.
Me: Do you ever find velvet worms?
Logrunner: I think you mean soft-many-legs? They’re a delicacy. Unlike those horrible bitter crunchy-many-legs.
Me: Are these things hard to find?
Logrunner: Not really, it just takes time.
Me: But you seem to have a special way of scratching…
Logrunner: Oh… yeah. We logrunners are pretty proud of that. It takes a while to learn though, when you’re growing up. I used to fall over a lot at first.
Me: You seem to scratch to the side, rather than backwards, like a chicken.
Logrunner: What’s a chicken?
Me: It’s a bigger bird, like a brush turkey.
Logrunner: Yes, well brush turkeys usually scratch backwards, but they can also flick stuff sideways. The other day I saw a goanna sneaking up on a turkey, and the turkey spotted him, and quickly kicked a barrage of leaves, twigs and dirt in his face. The goanna wasn’t very impressed.
Me: But what about your scratching?
Logrunner: Well, you see, the problem with scratching litter backwards, like a turkey, is that you also often scratch the bugs behind you, where you can’t see them real well, and they get away. What we do is scratch stuff to the side, where we can still see it.
Logrunner: Yes, and we do another thing that I don’t think any other bird can do.
Me: What’s that?
Logrunner: Well, I can lean back on my tail, which is nice and stiff, and also bend my leg at the ankle and lean on that at the same time. And then I can lift the leaves up with the other leg, like this. And because my beak is still free, I can peek underneath the leaves and quickly grab what’s underneath. Usually before the bugs even know what’s going on.
Me: Wow! I think you’re right. I’ve never seen a bird doing that before.
Logrunner: Yes. A lot of birds in fact, many birds, don’t even bother scratching. My friends the yellow robins much prefer to perch – very quiet and still, not far above the ground – and wait til they see something moving on the ground. Then they pounce. I’d find that really boring. Then the scrubwrens, well they just bounce around a lot – always chattering away or arguing with each other. They just grab whatever they see – on the ground or up in the branches. Some of them are smart enough to follow on behind the brush turkeys, or even hang around us sometimes, and pick up whatever gets left behind. But I love a good session of scratching – and we can get into little places that the brush turkeys can’t get into. So we can find lots of food that the others can’t.
* The Australian logrunner lives in subtropical rainforests. I met this logrunner family last week while camping in the Border Ranges National Park, near the border of Queensland and New South Wales. The leg and hip bones of the logrunner have a distinctive structure, which is probably related to the sideways-scratching foraging behavior of this bird. This distinctive structure has allowed palaeontologists to identify fossil logrunner bones from late Oligocene deposits of Riversleigh, in northern Australia – which is evidence that logrunners have been around for at least 24 million years.¹ I say ‘at least’ because the age of a fossil is likely to underestimate the age of an animal or plant lineage. A recent molecular phylogeny of songbirds suggested that logrunners may have been scratching about in Australian forests for about 50 million years.²
1. Nguyen, J. M., Boles, W. E., Worthy, T. H., Hand, S. J., & Archer, M. (2014). New specimens of the logrunner Orthonyx kaldowinyeri (Passeriformes: Orthonychidae) from the Oligo-Miocene of Australia. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, 38(2), 245-255.
2. Ericson, P. G., Klopfstein, S., Irestedt, M., Nguyen, J. M., & Nylander, J. A. (2014). Dating the diversification of the major lineages of Passeriformes (Aves). BMC evolutionary biology, 14(1), 8.