I caught two, almost simultaneous, flashes of movement outside my window. The marauding ginger cat had frozen on the pathway below. Above, a bird bobbed on the power line and sang a song of perceived treachery and threat.
I often hear the beautiful voice of this bird but see it very occasionally, so it was time to consult my bird books to be sure of the identification; to be sure to distinguish between a shrike and a butcher bird. Quickly I confirmed the bird on the wire was a Grey Butcher Bird (Cracticus torquatus), a native bird found on the mainland but most commonly resident across Tasmania.
I picked up various bird books and browsed. To my astonishment I discovered the Grey Butcher Bird had an array of common names: Silver-backed Butcher bird, Derwent Jackass, Tasmanian Jackass, Whistling Jack, Collared Crow-shrike, and Grey Shrike. Derwent Jackass indeed! This name stood out. The Derwent River flows nearby the bottom of the hill where I live and I wondered if that was the connection.
I was eager to know more. While trawling through the National Library of Australia’s Trove resources, I read 19th and 20th century newspaper articles and learnt so much more about the history of naming our bird.
The kookaburra, sometimes nicknamed the Laughing Jackass, and the butcher bird occasionally keep company in the bush, despite each being differently sized. Both have reliable voices to broadcast loudly that threats are around. Newspaper articles suggest that the Butcher Bird picked up the ‘Jackass’ epithet by association with the kookaburra. According to the 1969 edition of Chisholm’s Bird Wonders of Australia, the kookaburra is also known as the Laughing Jack and the Butcher Bird as the Derwent Jack, both presumably abbreviating Jackass. ‘Nature notes by Peregrine’ in a 1948 newspaper article noted ‘the name Derwent Jackass was often condensed to the more affectionate Derwent Jack or just Jack for, in spite of his villainous ways, the butcher bird has a pleasing personality and a pleasant song …’
Then I found references to Dervin and Derviners and Derwenters – all variously connected with our Butcher Bird. What did all this mean?
The Oxford Reference, ‘The Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms’ notes a Derwenter is ‘an ex-convict [from the convict settlement on the Derwent River in Tas.]’ Another source was clear that a Derwenter was one of the first convicts brought into the Derwent River so presumably this referred to the convicts arriving in 1803 and onward through at least the next couple of decades. An 1897 newspaper article reported ‘old convicts were named Derwenters after this river’. That report also remarked that ‘… chain gangs in their parti-coloured clothing, brown and yellow (magpies they were called) busy road making…’. This is strange remark because the magpies have purely black and white feathers. Nevertheless it connects birds and Derwenters. In another newspaper article reporting on a court case, it was clear calling someone a Derwenter was derogatory and implied they were a murderer.
The Launceston Examiner newspaper printed an article in 1876 titled “DERWENT JACKASSES.—”I may tell you a bit of natural history which came under the notice of an old hutkeeper here. He was awoke one morning by hearing a tremendous noise of chirping and, on going out, he discovered on a hill adjacent to his hut two Derwent Jackasses (a species of jackass, only very small) trying to teach their young ones to fly. As they are splendid talkers and whistlers, he caught three young ones, and put them in a cage out-side the hut door. In order to find out what they lived on, he starved them, and soon their cries for food attracted the notice of the old birds, who, immediately after finding out where they were, flew away, and brought them back young snakes, from 3ft. to 4ft. long, and in the space of three days brought them in this way fifty snakes, which the young birds ate with great avidity.”
A 1906 newspaper article remarked ‘The butcher bird, or Derwent Jackass, is a notorious criminal of the avian community and the terror of maiden ladies of suburbia who own pet canaries. From the time when he first flutters out of a lofty cradle amid the top-most branches of some tall stringy bark, until the fierce brown eyes are glazed in death, the butcher bird is ‘red in beak and claw’ and his way marked with destruction. The butcher bird is an epicure in his own way, always liking to dine off fresh meat. His unfortunate victims are brought home one by one…’ Tasmania’s Grey Butcher Bird, an aggressive feeder, preys upon small animals, including birds, lizards and insects. As such, the bird could be classed a murderer, so that the term Derwenter sits comfortably.
The Derwent River was also known as the Dervine. A Mount Gambier newspaper of 1877 offered a story: Billy was a great stickler for the honour of Vandemonia, and when a traveller visited the hut, one of Bill’s first questions to him would be: “Been at t’other side?” or “Have you been on the Dervine?” The first interrogatory implied, “Have you ever been a convict in Tasmania?” and the other asked if the party had ever been on the Derwent in a similar capacity.
Tasmania’s Grey Butcher Bird was also called a Dervin or a Derviner. Some believe the latter term is a derivation of Derwenters and may simply be the result of confusing accents being spoken by the array of guards and convicts and free settlers in the early 19th century. An 1885 newspaper reports on a publican owner who ‘knew the bins of the old Derviners always drew them to the place where they are best treated.’
Two hundred or so years ago, locals would have recognised the bird on the wire outside my window as a Dervin, Derviner, Derwenter or Derwent Jackass These days I am happy to refer to it as a Tassie grey butcher bird.