Article and images by Dr Julie O'Connor, senior conservation partnerships officer, Sunshine Coast Council
I fly by night; a furtive ghoul
A master of camouflage, the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides), can usually be found sitting motionless in a tree during the day where it can be almost indistinguishable from the bark and branches. It is one of Australia’s best known nocturnal birds and its low distinctive ‘oom oom oom’ call is a familiar sound of the night in many areas across Australia. With the exception of treeless desert and dense rainforest, the tawny frogmouth can be found in almost any habitat, including suburbia.
There can be considerable size variation both geographically and between individuals, with Queensland’s tawny frogmouths generally a little smaller than those living in south-eastern Australia. Its plumage is camouflaged to resemble bark, so within its neutral coloured plumage palette, it is not surprising that there can also be noticeable regional variation in its colouration.
At night they feed on a range of nocturnal prey, including insects, molluscs, and less frequently, vertebrate prey, including small mammals, reptiles, frogs and birds. In one study undertaken in eastern New South Wales, stomach content analysis found that vertebrates comprised only 4% of dietary items, compared to 78% insects and 18% spiders and myriapods. Dietary studies have also noted seasonality in diet and the opportunistic predation on some species, e.g house mice during plague events and frogs following significant rainfall.
Almost all food is caught by pouncing to the ground from a higher vantage point. Its wide gaping mouth helps it to scoop prey from the ground, a technique further enhanced by the modified feathers around the mouth, which help to guide the prey into the mouth. Its excellent binocular vision and sharp hearing are also key to its hunting success.
Tawny frogmouths form lifelong pair bonds and can remain together in the same territory for more than ten years. The pair will usually raise one clutch of 2 or 3 chicks per season, with male and female sharing both incubation and parenting duties.
As with most creatures that fly silently through the night, the tawny frogmouth has stirred the human imagination. Penned by C. J. Dennis, The Tawny Frogmouth was included in his beautiful 1935 book, The Singing Garden:
I fly by night; a furtive ghoul,
To harry small bush folk;
And men who know the boobook owl
Mistake me for that dish-faced fowl
With his hunting cry, “Mopoke.”
But when you hear my grunting call
You know it’s not like that at all.
I prey until the dawn shows dim;
Then seek some gnarled old tree
And feign to be a broken limb,
Holding my pose with patience grim
For all the world to see,
Yet never guess this ragged bark
Is frogmouth, waiting for the dark.
Tail to the trunk and beak held high,
I slowly turn my head
To follow you as you pass by,
Peeping from out a hooded eye
Till your departing tread
Proves mimicry is not in vain;
And then I go to sleep again.
The curve of my bewhiskered beak
Holds death when darkness comes;
And terror spreads among the meek
Of bushland when my meat I seek
Amid the sleeping gums.
A call, a scurry, squeals of fright:
’Tis frogmouth, hunting in the night.
- Dennis C. J, The Singing Garden, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935, pages 51-52
- Green RH, Scarborough TJ, McQuillan PB. Food and feeding of the laughing kookaburra and tawny frogmouth in Tasmania. Tasmanian Naturalist. 1988;93:5-8
- Madani G. 2020, Snake predation by the Tawny Frogmouth' Podargus strigoides'. Australian Field Ornithology. Jan;37:42-3
- Rose AB, Eldridge RH. 1997, Diet of the Tawny Frogmouth 'Podargus strigoides' in Eastern New South Wales. Australian Bird Watcher. Jan;17(1):25-33.