When it’s not mistaken for an owl, the Tawny Frogmouth can easily be confused with a tree branch! With narrowed eyelids and a stretched neck, this bark-coloured bird is a master of camouflage.
Tawny frogmouths are between 34cm (females) and 53cm long (males) and can weigh up to 680g. Their plumage is mottled grey, white, black and rufous – the feather patterns help them mimic dead tree branches. Their feathers are soft, like those of owls, allowing for stealthy, silent flight. They have stocky heads with big yellow eyes. Stiff bristles surround their beak; these ‘whiskers’ that may help detect the movement of flying insects, and/or protect their face from the bites or stings of distressed prey (this is not known for certain). Their beak is large and wide, hence the name frogmouth.
Their genus name, Podargus, is from the Greek work for gout. Why? Unlike owls they don't have curved talons on their feet; in fact, their feet are small, and they’re said to walk like a gout-ridden man! Their species name, strigoides, means owl-like.
They’re nocturnal and carnivorous, but Tawny Frogmouths aren't owls – they’re more closely related to Nightjars. There are two other species of frogmouth in Australia – the Papuan Frogmouth (Podargus papuensis) lives in the Cape York Peninsula, and the Marbled Frogmouth (P. ocellatus) is found in two well-separated races: one in tropical rainforests in northern Cape York and the other in subtropical forests of southern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales.
Where do Frogmouths live?
Tawny Frogmouths are found throughout Australia, on the mainland and Tasmania. They prefer open woodlands, but are found in a wide variety of habitats – rainforest margins, alpine woodlands, parks and gardens. They’re seldom found in arid regions or in dense rainforests. A breeding pair often stays in the same territory for more than 10 years. Common where they occur, chances are you’ve picnicked under a tree concealing a frogmouth or two!
The species is considered of Least Concern to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Tawny Frogmouths sleep during the day. At dusk they shake their disguise and begin their nocturnal hunt. They catch prey in flight, or by sitting motionless in a tree and then swooping down on ground-dwelling prey. Tawny Frogmouths eat insects and centipedes, worms, spiders, snails and slugs. Sometimes they eat larger prey like frogs, reptiles and small birds and mammals. It’s thought that most of their water requirements are obtained from their prey, rainfall and dew.
Tawny Frogmouths mate for life. Females typically lay two to three eggs each breeding season (around August to December). The nest is made of sticks and rests on a horizontal tree branch. At night the breeding pair take turns incubating the eggs, but the father normally takes the day shift. After the chicks have hatched, the whole family can be seen roosting on the same branch, side-by-side. In the wild they can live up to 14 years.
Their call is a low booming "Oom-oom-oom-oom" noise. When threatened they may hiss loudly and strike a defensive pose that makes them appear larger than life – eyes and beak wide open. But for Tawny Frogmouths, disguise is the best form of defense!
While roosting, Tawny Frogmouths can be taken by Carpet Pythons. When on the ground hunting their own prey, these birds can be killed by feral cats, dogs and foxes. However, habitat loss, whether through land clearing, forestry or intensive bushfires, is the most serious threat to the ongoing health of the species – they're reluctant to move to other areas if their habitat is destroyed.
Tawny Frogmouths need woodlands with mature trees to nest and roost in, and to serve as a backdrop for their clever disguise. Organochlorine insecticides (used for termite control) and rat poison, when present in the prey of Tawny frogmouths cause many deaths in urban areas. Finally, being nocturnal, the species is vulnerable to vehicle collision – they're known to fly after headlight-illuminated insects.
What's Bush Heritage doing?
We have Tawny Frogmouths on most of our reserves and partnership properties, from Tasmania to Queensland and across to the north west of Western Australia. We protect their habitat by conserving native vegetation and allowing trees to reach a mature age, and conserving the ecosystem on which they depend. Our feral cat, dog and fox work also reduces the risk of predation.