Many of us living in cities are turning to our local parks and greenspaces as we socially distance ourselves and spend more time at home. Much of our native wildlife, particularly birds, also find refuge in these greenspaces. Occasionally, we get to see nomadic species who are following seasonally available food.
One such nomad is the topknot pigeon (Lopholaimus antarcticus). Not to be confused with the much smaller, largely ground-dwelling crested pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes), the topknot pigeon is a large, nomadic, fruit-eating pigeon, found all along the east coast of Australia, from northern Queensland to eastern Victoria.
Measuring up to 45cm from bill to tail, and weighing up to 600g, these bulky, grey pigeons are roughly a third larger and can be over three times heavier than introduced feral pigeons. They are also distinctive in shape and plumage, with a long dark tail with a pale band across it, and in adults, a funky feathery hairdo consisting a grey, feathery bulge projecting from the forehead above the bill, and their namesake, a feathered, orange “topknot” (perhaps more adequately described as a mullet) extending from the top of their head a little way down their neck.
Exclusively frugivorous (fruit-eating), these birds can be hard to spot while feeding high in fruiting trees. They may catch your attention as they drop debris (if not worse!) on unwary observers while gorging themselves on their sugar-rich meals. As most of their favourite trees only have fruit at certain times of year, they often move long distance across their range based on the availability of these fruits. They are most commonly seen in inner Sydney during the summer months when the fruits of fig trees (which are found across much of inner Sydney’s parklands, such as Moreton Bay and Port Jackson figs) represent the bulk of their diet.
Plethora of Pigeons
This past summer we have had a boom of sightings of this species in inner Sydney, particularly in our greenspaces. While certainly driven by resources (food availability) as most of their movements in this region tend to be, it is possible that a lack of available food and cover in burnt areas of our coast, north, south and west of the Sydney area, may have pushed more birds than usual into our region this year.
In the suburb of Glebe where I live, birds from this influx were first spotted on 30th November 2019 in a large 100-strong flock flying north over Jubilee Park oval. On 19th December a bird was seen in the Moreton Bay figs at Wentworth Park along Bridge Road and on 10th January 2020, a large flock was spotted feeding in the Moreton Bay figs around the children’s playground at Jubilee Park, where they continued to be recorded until at least the end of March – they may still be there. During this time, sightings included birds foraging, as well as birds flying over and disappearing over Rozelle and towards Balmain. It is unclear whether the birds took up residence, or we witnessed different birds dropping in, feeding, and moving on. Below, birdwatchers’ records of topknot pigeons across the broader inner Sydney area have been mapped over time, from June 2019 until the end of March 2020, to show this seasonal influx which began around November/December and appears to have peaked in February/March 2020.
Next time you’re out for a jog in your local park, or you happen to walk by a fruiting tree, take a moment to look up (make sure your mouth stays shut just in case!) and see if you can spot one of these chunky pigeons, a regular but uncommon visitor to our area.