A great egret looks for breakfast at Calamvale Creek


Scientific stuff

Grey butcherbird

Cracticus torquatus
26-32 centimetres
(11-13 inches)

Small songbird with black on head, end of wings, and tail. Grey back, greyish-white throat and underbody. Tail feathers have white tips.

Has a strong, long, pointed beak with a tiny hook at the end. Beak is grey, with black near the tip.

Underbody is greyish white, as is the scruff of its neck.

Juveniles have the same pattern as adults, but brown where the adults have black, and buff where the adults have grey-white.

Although not as musical as the pied butcherbird, the grey butcherbird produces strong well-pitched whistling musical notes that sometimes have simple but haunting riffs like those favoured by jazz bands.

Like pied butcherbird. Patient, swift, and accurate. Patient until it sees prey on or near the ground, then swoops down to catch it with rarely a miss.

Using our photos

Photos on this website are copyright. If you want to use any, email us at: creeklife@gmail.com

Greg's photos

Greg has two main areas around Calamvale Creek that he frequents.

One is in the trees around the riparian wetland (see map), and the other is around the wooden bridge.

The photographer said:
“Greg and the other grey butcherbirds around the creek are more often alone than in groups like the pied butcherbirds.

“I come across Greg regularly in the trees and parkland near the riparian wetland, and also singing from tree branches near the wooden bridge.

“Although I see two or more of the family members nearby at times, more often he is on his own — either catching food on the ground or sitting on tree branches waiting for something small to move below so he can swoop on it for a meal.

“Grey butcherbirds tend to sit on branches ready to ambush any small prey they see on the ground. Their short legs don't allow them to run well, so they wait until the right moment to swoop down and get their prey.

“Greg's good points include his melodious and far-carrying songs. His not-so-pleasant point is that he is a notorious raider of other birds' nests.

“I have seen other birds obviously bewildered on returning to their nest to find their eggs or chicks gone. They wander around the base of the tree thinking the eggs or chicks have fallen out, and then discover broken egg shells some metres away.

“I have tried to work out the meaning of the song given in the main article. When I whistle it near a grey butcherbird the bird always flies off to a nearby tree.

“I take that to mean that the song either means 'stay out of my territory' or that I am such a bad imitator of their song that they can't stand being near me when I whistle.”

Critters of Calamvale Creek

Greg, the grey butcherbird

Cracticus torquatus

Hello from Greg the grey butcherbird. I live around Calamvale Creek in Brisbane, Australia. I sit on medium-to-high branches and sing songs that are sometimes so catchy they make musicians applaud. (Sometimes my songs are not so creative — but at least they are always on key.)

grey_butcherbird_6 (22K)

How am I different from pied butcherbirds?

grey_butcherbird_1 (24K)People who don't know much about butcherbirds often confuse grey butcherbirds with pied butcherbirds. But there are obvious differences.

First, our back is grey. That's why we are called grey butcherbirds. See me in the photo above sitting on a branch. I have a grey back. Pied butcherbirds have a black back.

Second, grey butcherbirds have a white lore — this is a white spot between the eye and the beginning of the upper part of our beak. You can see it in this second photo above.

Third, our collar and breast are different from pied butcherbirds.

Let me show you

The best way to explain it is to show you.

butcherbird_differences (32K)

Photo no.1 shows a grey butcherbird — me. Notice the black on my head. It comes down only to my shoulder. It doesn't go under my beak. The photo also shows my white lore between my beak and eye.

Photo no.2 shows young Gretel the grey butcherbird. She is brown. Yes, I know it sounds crazy that a grey butcherbird can be brown, but that's just what colour immature butcherbirds are. The darker colours come later. But you can tell she's in our grey butcherbird group because she has the shoulder-length colour, white under her chin, and a white lore.

Photo no.3 shows Pat the pied butcherbird. Pat has a long black bib that goes under his chin, no white lore, and black (not grey) wings.

Greys and pieds are the only two types of butcherbirds that occur naturally in Brisbane.

What are my songs like?

Cracticus_torquatus_7 (27K)My singing is rich and varied. I have sweet and mellow songs as well as harsh calls, and calls I copy from other birds.

My songs are not always as beautiful as the pied butcherbird's, but I can sing a series of slow and mellow musical phrases, as well as enthusiastic piping notes while flying.

Here is a song that has become a butcherbird classic — it has been passed down through our family for generations.

It's called “Here I am sitting on a tree branch waiting to swoop you off your feet”.

butcherbird_song (1K)

Why are we called butcherbirds?

We are called butcherbirds because we “butcher” tough prey before eating it. You can see photos of this on Pat the pied butcherbird's page.

If we have a tough rat or snake to eat, we can't hold it to our mouth because we have short legs. So we wedge it in the fork of a tree or hang it on a hook-like twig, or impale it against a tree trunk with our beak.

What do I eat?

I get most of my food on the ground. I eat small lizards and snakes, rodents, skinks, small birds, baby water dragons, insects, and some seeds. I raid other birds' nests if I see an opportunity.

grey_butcherbird_4 (25K)

Look at the photo above. I've fallen asleep, right? Wrong, I'm scouring the ground below for signs of any activity from mice, lizards, caterpillars, or whatever else looks tasty. If you see me like this you can be sure I'm looking for food exactly in the direction my beak is pointing.

Cracticus_torquatus_5 (13K)In the photo at right I quickly swooped down from the branch and am about to pounce on a lizard.

A second after this photo was taken I caught the lizard and invited him back to my tree for lunch. He couldn't say no, because he was my lunch. Lizards are not bad to eat when you get used to the taste. To me, they taste like chicken.

Breeding and nesting

grey_butcherbird_2 (27K)We breed through the second half of the year, from July through till January.

Our nest is a bowl made from twigs, in the fork of a tree or sapling between two and 10 metres off the ground. From the outside the nest looks disorderly, but inside it is neat and comfortable. We line the interior with soft grasses, palm fronds, and other thin fibres.

We lay between 3 and 5 brown spotted eggs. Mrs Greg incubates our eggs for three-and-a-half weeks, and I bring food to the nest for her.

When the eggs hatch, we both feed the young, and they fledge (get their feathers and wings working) after about another month.

We both defend the nest ferociously, and savagely attack any intruders.

The youngsters stay with us for quite a long time, and help feed the following year's young.

— Greg, the grey butcherbird