- Last updated:
- 27 Jan 2023
Wonga pigeon Leucosarcia melanoleuca, endemic to Australia, is assumed to be an ancient survivor of a genus unique to Australia with no other relatives. It's behaviour, calls, plumage and courting display are like no other pigeon.
For me, this beautiful large ground pigeon, measuring between 35 and 40cm, captures the enchantment of the rainforest. Its far-carrying repetitive call of “wonga wonga wonga” can continue for hours and be heard up to 2km away.
They inhabit the understorey of temperate and subtropical rainforests, wet eucalypt forests or scrubby gullies. They will regularly come into clearings to forage for insects, fallen berries and seeds from native and introduced grasses, shrubs and trees. Acacia seeds and Ink weed berries appear to be favourites.
Their distribution is along the east coast from Rockhampton to Melbourne. In Queensland they occur inland as far as the Brigalow country and Carnarvon Gorge, where I was delighted to hear one calling.
The appearance of this large terrestrial pigeon is distinctive with different shades of grey, white forehead, an impressive white “V” on its plump, grey breast, dark grey spots on a white belly and red legs.
Pairing mainly occurs during the breeding season from September to February. In courtship the male generally stands on a log, fluffs his plumage and dances, opening and closing his wings while rhythmically swinging his head from side to side.
A dish-shaped nest of twigs is built in a horizontal fork of a tree from as low as 3m up to 20m high. Two white eggs are laid, with the male sharing the incubation and feeding of the young. Pigeon milk is a nutritious substance sloughed from the walls of the crop of both sexes during nesting and regurgitated into nestlings’ open beaks.
If a Wonga is disturbed it will take off with a loud clapping of wings and fly to a nearby low branch where it will remain motionless, with its back towards the observer, relying on its camouflage to escape detection. In the past, this habit was its undoing as it became an easy target for hunters. At one time the Wonga pigeon was present in abundance throughout its territories but with early European settlement Wonga pigeons were shot and trapped for their good eating qualities, and numbers declined dramatically, becoming extinct in some areas. Loss of habitat and predation by cats and foxes has since added to their problem.
Wonga numbers are now holding where enough of their habitat remains. On the Sunshine Coast this is mainly in the Conondale and Blackall Ranges. Let’s hope these now protected beautiful quaint pigeons can continue to survive as they have managed to do through the ages.
Article by Janet Whish-Wilson
Image by Rob Kernot