Dr. Atkin’s Letters Home: Animals!

Faculty Member Bob Atkin

Faculty Member Bob Atkin

OK, boys and girls, it’s quiz time.

I say “Australian animal” and you say…uh…

  • platypus” (That works but c’mon, you didn’t say that)
  • “ostrich” (wrong, but a similar thing called an emu)
  • “…that cute little furry teddy-bear-like thing?” (maybe you mean koala, which is right, or maybe panda, which is wrong)

Nah…you probably said kangaroo!!!

kangarooMy wife keeps asking me, “Have you seen any…kangaroos?”  No, can’t say I have. Sydney is a city and these guys generally aren’t urban critters, although try telling that to one spotted recently in the Adelaide suburbs patiently awaiting his/her train.

However, on my third time to the Night Noodle Market (on a CAPA field visit), I did see something at a distance that I thought was a weird squirrel with a scrawny tail (it was in the same park as the Market, but far from the noodle action).

“No,” said Dana the CAPA lady leading our little band. “It’s just a ‘possum, a baby.”  A brush-tailed type, no doubt, as I learned later with some Internet time.

Animals___Rodents___Animal_Echidna_from_South_Australia_043332_But back to kangaroos. Turns out there are “over 60 different species of kangaroo and their close relatives” and they range in size “from 0.5 kilograms to 90 kilograms,” according to an Aussie government website. Never heard of their close relatives, which include wallaroos, pademelons, and bettongs? Clearly, this is a country of curious animals with strange names. You want more?  Two you’ve probably heard of are dingos and Tasmanian devils.  But bilbys, wombats, quolls, cassowaries, echidnas, and goannas? (Why there are so many unique animals here?  A quick Internet search – completely unverified – suggests it has something to do with the break-up of the former supercontinent Gondwana, the relative isolation of the resulting land mass, climate evolution, and human settlement patterns.)australian-desert-animals-4

Lots of these dudes hang at the Sydney Zoo. You can book a ticket online and there are special student prices.

Now, some folks don’t like zoos (or even the concept), so maybe you like animals au naturel. Some I’ve “met” around town include:

  • Cockatoos – Cool, white parrots with a yellow crest. I’ve seen them in small numbers in various places around town (aside: there’s an island in Sydney Harbour called Cockatoo Island that is UNESCO-world-heritage listed. Great place to see these birds, right? Maybe it was a long time ago, but not anymore. The island became a prison (think Alcatraz) and then a ship-building center, and is now re-purposed as a camp site with some “holiday homes” and no more cockatoos than elsewhere in town).
  • Magpies – I’ve seen quite a few of these handsome black birds with white markings. They are early morning warblers and highly defensive in their nesting areas when chicks are present. Apparently not a problem in Sydney, but in Brisbane, beware (scroll down for a news video).
  • Ibis – I think the locals have a love/hate relationship with these guys. They’re odd-looking, large (page through site) messy birds – about the size of a Canadian goose except they hang out in trees. Marsh birds that adapted well to a Sydney urban life style. If you see a sidewalk with large patches of white, that’s a good sign of ibis overhead.
  • Kookaburras – Never actually saw one. Quick story: It’s early evening, sometime during my first week here. Near my flat I hear this loud sound – like raucous laughter. Big party somewhere, I think. Casually mention it to the folks at the reception when I get to the Meriton, our home base. Their reply, “probably kookaburra.”
  • Rabbitohs – Also raucous sounding, indigenous exclusively to South Sydney, particularly Redfern (a close-by neighborhood). Usually has a green and red top with either black or white on the bottom. Celebrated on flags and pennants. They play ferociously. Seemingly much loved by locals.
  • Kanga-bangas – Saw these 5 minutes from my flat. Interesting way to “link” with the roos my wife keeps asking me about, but they don’t jump much in this form, except maybe off your plate.

Bob Atkin
Sydney NSW Australia