Dialogue with a logrunner

logrunner pair

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.
Me: Clever.
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.

16 Responses

  1. Dayna

    Very informative post, Paula. I’ve seen them scratching around many times but I admit I hadn’t really focused on the action of their joints – mostly I’m marveling that I’ve spotted something and I’m trying to either recall the name or memories distinctive features so I can look it up later!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Dayna, thought you might be familiar with these little guys

  2. Gail

    ‘What’s a chicken?’ 🙂 this is a lovely post Paula. I really enjoyed your imagining the inner world of the logrunner. Plus I learnt things about them that I didn’t know. Your videos really add to this post too. Seeing the family video after reading your dialogue was beautiful and I could clearly see their sideways scratching. Thanks for a great read!

  3. Paula Peeters

    thanks Gail, I’m glad you liked it. The result of compulsive reading of Watership Down, the Silver Brumby, and any other story with talking animals in it, when I was a child!

  4. Robyn

    Paula, this post was so engaging; informative too. The video clip illustrated beautifully the behaviour you describe. Silver Brumby and Watership Down are still on my shelf some sixty years later

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Robyn, yes these little birds were just busily scratching around the campsites – hence the wire fence – so I took advantage of the good light and managed to get some video. And great to hear you have excellent literary taste too

  5. Michael Fox

    Great angle on the story Paula. Makes me smile to think of you seemingly chatting to yourself in the bush.
    And yes, once I read Gail’s comment and watched the video again I saw the sideways scratching.
    I love the background music to the videos.

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Michael, I suspect you might have little chats to the birds too sometimes, out in Mt Gravatt?!

  6. Mary

    What a delightful dialogue you gifted us with in this post. I enjoyed my introduction to the Australian logrunner—a bird I had seen before but had never identified. There is such diversity of wildlife in our forests.

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Mary. And it’s also easy to determine the males (white throat) from the females (orange throat). They’re usually in pairs and tend to be sedentary.

  7. Paula Schetters

    What a lovely way to educate! Very engaging! No doubt it could be applied to audiences of different age groups. Though I’m seeing potential for an interactive children’s resource, with components such as this dialogue and the video clip.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hey Paula good to hear from you and thanks for commenting. I certainly enjoy teaching kids, but have to admit my holy grail is entertaining/informing the adults. Not always an easy thing to do though – as I’m sure you would appreciate.

  8. Jane

    Such fun and informative too! Thanks Paula, I can see I’m going to find out loads of things here without any pain. Lovely to watch the family together.

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Jane, glad you enjoyed it. Yes I think there’s far too much pain in the world already, especially for those who already care. Cheers, Paula

  9. Jane

    Hi Paula,
    What a great way to educate and entertain at the same time, Paula. Loved the “chat’ and the video. I’ve been known to have a few conversations with feathered friends on walks myself. I think I saw quite a few logrunners while at Springbrook National Park recently but they wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to get a good look at their markings! It was great to be able to see them more closely on your video. Thanks for a great post again. 🙂

  10. Paula Peeters

    Hi Jane thanks for the great feedback. I’d love to hear what’s being discussed in your conversations with the wildlife – maybe you could share some on your blog? It can be hard to distinguish bird details in the darkness of the rainforest, but once you recognize the scratching of these birds this will certainly help. They also have a loud, distinctive call that some people reckon sounds like ‘Guinea a week’. But I’m not so sure 🙂 Cheers Paula