A VOICE IN A TREE SCREAMED “GO AWAY!” by Deborah Painter

    And she or he sounded really sarcastic about it.

When my colleague Amber was pursuing her degree in environmental science about six years ago, she traveled to Tanzania and later, South Africa, to put in several weeks as a volunteer water quality monitor in Tanzania as well as South Africa’s Mozambique border.  She told me about working in a quiet rural area there and having her concentration interrupted by a strange person up in a nearby tall tree shouting “go away!”.  Amber looked up to see a crested gray bird with a long and broad tail.  There was no sign of a tree surgeon, a mischievous child or any human beings in that tree. More strident voices joined in as more gray birds flew in.  Here is the sound Amber kept hearing..

   Soon Amber was being yelled at by many unfamiliar wild birds that seemed to speak English!  The gray go-away bird (Corythaixoides concolor), also known as the gray lourie, gray loerie, gray plantain eater or kwȇvoёl, is known for its alarm calls “g’wayerrrr”, that sound to English speaking people like an angry person saying “go away!”.  Its mouthful of a scientific name means “Like the Knysna Turaco (scientific genus name Thaixoides), and a uniform colour and shade all over its body (concolor)”.   There are several species of go-away bird and all are less vivid in colour than the majority of turaco species. The gray go-away bird is a native and year ‘round resident of South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia and is a common member of the musophagidae bird family that includes the turacos.   At maturity the gray go-away bird is from 220 to 300 grams in weight and 47 to 51 centimeters in length.  

Gray go-away bird. The harsh calls of the gray go-away birds have been observed to thwart owls in their efforts to quietly hunt prey. CREDITS: Albany Colley

  Amber asked some of the South African volunteer coordinators about this interesting bird and learned facts about its behavior.  Go-away birds will sometimes mob owls and frustrate their hunting efforts.  Suburban homeowners of the Johannesburg area will often find these birds in their gardens, particularly if there is a reliable supply of water available.  Many gardeners consider the gray go-away birds pests because of their fondness for fruit and leaves.  The species also shows a preference for farms, parks and bushveld habitats with plenty of termites, snails, fruit, and leaves of select trees and flowers.  The favoured plants in its diet are peach trees, mulberry trees, guava trees, wild figs, cabbage and mistletoe (not plantain, despite its name).  It consumes fruits, flowers and leaves of the guava, mulberry and peach trees and is an interesting species to watch as it moves about a garden raising its crest up and down. 

  I became interested and learned more information.  The gray go-away bird nests in thorny trees. Up to four eggs are laid, with an incubation period of around twenty-eight days.  Sometimes other adults, probably the pair’s previous chicks now grown, help them care for the new generation if they are not busy with a brood of their own at the time. The chicks leave the nest after twenty-one days.

The harsh calls of the gray go-away birds have been observed to thwart owls in their efforts to quietly hunt prey. CREDITS: Albany Colley

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List” of Threatened Species lists the species as “Least Concern”, meaning that the world’s population is sufficiently large and well distributed and there is currently no cause for concern among ecologists and other biologists that the population is threatened.  This status also means that the adult population has not been seen to decline more than ten per cent over the last three generations.  I hope everyone in this bird’s range can continue to hear “go away!” being shrieked from the treetops for a long time.