Australia – A Land Of Strange Plants And Animals

LEAVING Melbourne we travel for days north and south over the country, avoiding the great cities and exploring the wilds. Now we are climbing the beautiful mountains which run along back of the coast, lingering in valleys bedded with ferns of all sizes. There are fern trees so high we can climb them, and, what is worse, nettles much higher. The nettles have light green leaves which sting terribly when we touch them. There are also palm trees and evergreens so matted together that they make us think of a tropical jungle. We can hardly make our way through them.

Other regions are all woodland. There are miles and miles of great trees with no undergrowth and plenty of grass. Most of the forest is of the eucalyptus or gum-tree variety, of which there are more than three hundred kinds in Australia. Some gums, like the mallee, are about ten feet high with trunks no thicker than a blackboard pointer, and others are among the largest trees known. The gigantic blue gum, for instance, grows three hundred feet tall and six feet in diameter. It is said to reach a greater height than our famous big trees of California.

It is the eucalyptus that gives to Australia much of its gloomy appearance. Many regions are covered with mallee and mulga scrub, vast areas of dusty brown bushes so matted together that it is almost impossible to make one’s way through them. The taller forests are dreary. The leaves of the gums hang down from the branches as though they were weeping, and the bark is half off. On some trees the leaves never fall, and remain green all the year round. The trees shed their bark instead of their leaves, the old bark hanging from the trunk like disheveled hair, while the new bark is white or silver-gray.

In some places we pass through groves of dead trees which have been ringed with an ax to kill them for clearing. Such trees have lost their leaves, their bark has dropped to the ground, and their white trunks and branches look like polished bones or skeleton trees. The logs on the ground are white, the stumps are white, and all the surroundings like those of a graveyard. We feel very depressed during parts of our journey, and do not wonder that part of the interior has been called the “Never, Never Country.”

Still, nature is so strange that which has sprouted out grass the bottle tree has a trunk the shape of a great bottle, with branches and leaves growing out of the cork.

we are interested every moment. We are always finding new plants and flowers. In northern Australia there are bamboos, palm trees, and tropical jungles. We find beautiful orchids of odd shapes with singular flowers, and a lily known as the ” Gigantic,” which grows to a height of ten feet and bears an immense dark red blossom. The grass tree is like a tall stump on the sides and top, and the bottle tree has a trunk the shape of a great bottle, with branches and leaves growing out of the cork.

The Australian animals are even more interesting than the plants. This is the land of the marsupial or pouch bearer. There are more than one hundred different kinds of animals which have pouches on their bodies, in which they carry their young.

Some of these animals are taller than a man, and some no bigger than your thumb. Some climb trees, some gallop over the plains, and some spend more than half their time in the water.

The largest of the marsupials are the kangaroos, ranging in size from great gray fellows measuring more than seven feet from nose to tail, down to the family dwarf, the kangaroo rat. We see specimens of every kind in the zoological gardens of Sydney and Melbourne, and we meet some during our tour through the country, now and, then having a kangaroo hunt with the squatters.

The red and gray kangaroos are hunted in most parts of Australia and killed by the thousands. Horses and dogs are bred for the sport. The dogs are a sort of hound, very fierce and fleet of foot. The big kangaroo has enormous hind legs which send it flying along as though moved by steel springs. It can leap twenty or thirty feet at a jump, and it fairly gallops over the country.

When brought to bay, it is dangerous and will then attack a dog or a man. It usually backs itself up against a tree, and as the dog comes up it seizes him with its fore paws and hugs him tightly to its breast, while it tears him to pieces with the single claw which it has on each hind foot. This claw is as hard as ivory; it is three or four inches long and it cuts like a knife. Kangaroos can swim as well as run, and they take to the water when they can. If a dog follows them, they will seize him, pull his head under, and hold him there until he is drowned.

These animals usually go about in herds. We often see a male and female together, and sometimes spy the head of a baby kangaroo sticking out of its mother’s pouch. The kangaroos are very small when born, some kinds being not more than an inch long at that time. The mother puts her babies into her pouch, and there they live upon their mother’s milk for eight or nine months, coming out now and then to eat grass and crawling back when they are tired or at the least sign of danger. They leave the pouch when they become too heavy for the mother to carry.

Among the most common of the small kangaroos are the wallabies, which are killed for their skins. There is a great demand for kangaroo leather for bags, shoes, and other such things, and much of it is yearly exported to the United States.

Australia has a marsupial bear, and in northern Queens-land there are kangaroos which live in the trees like monkeys. They climb about and spend most of their time feeding upon the leaves, seldom coming down except for water.

Among other curious animals of the continent are two little beasts which lay eggs. One of these is the duck-billed platypus and the other the echidna or spiny ant-eater. The platypus is a sort of water mole, with fur as soft and thick as that of a beaver. It is about twenty inches long and it has a flat head, which ends in two jaws almost exactly like a duck’s bill. It has web feet, so that it can swim through the water. It is usually found along the . streams of southeastern Australia and Tasmania, living in little tunnels which it bores out from the land down into the stream. In the middle of such a tunnel the platypus makes its house, having one door to the water and another to the land. It builds its nest halfway down and there lays its eggs and hatches them, sitting, it is said, upon the eggs as the birds do. The platypus feeds upon water insects, shellfish, beetles, and roots. Its fur makes beautiful cloaks.

The other egg-laying animal is the spiny anteater, somewhat like a hedgehog in size and appearance. This animal has a long snout, and a round, flexible tongue, covered with a sticky secretion, with which it can lick up the ants upon which it feeds. It has a pouch in which it places its eggs, carrying them about until they are hatched.

We see bats now and then, some so big they are known as flying foxes, and others so small they are called flying mice. We pass dingos during our horseback rides through the woods, and the squatters tell us to shoot them at sight, as they worry the sheep and sometimes kill them by hundreds. The dingo is the wild dog of Australia. It does not bark or growl like a good, honest dog. It simply howls. It is a sneaking animal and as cunning as a fox. It is so dreaded by the shepherds that bounties are given for dingo scalps, and the wild dogs are hunted just as are foxes in England.

The birds of Australia are as strange as the animals. Naturalists tell us that the continent has more than seven hundred varieties of birds which are found nowhere else. There are vast numbers of parrots in the woods of the north, some as white as snow, others of a delicate pink, and others as red as fresh blood. There are yellow par-rots, green parrots, and parrots of every shade and tint you could imagine.

One of the most curious birds is the lyre bird, which has a tail shaped like a lyre, and another is the satin bower bird, which builds up a sort of playground near the tree where its nest is. Its playground is sometimes three feet in diameter, consisting of a floor made of woven sticks raised up from the ground. Upon this floor the birds build a little bower of woven twigs. They weave the gay feathers of parrots and other birds in and out of the sticks, put bones and shells here and there about the bower, and collect everything they’ can to beautify it. These birds when young are bright green, but when full grown, the females are green and brown and the males have feathers like shining black satin. They are found along the east coast of Australia.

Australia has eagles, owls, humming birds, pigeons, quails, pheasants, and brush turkeys. Along the coast are ibises as tall as we are, with pink legs like pipe stems, and with long, pink necks, and bodies covered with feathers as white as snow except under the wings, where they are black. There are black swans, pelicans, and wild ducks. There are divers and gulls, as well as swallows, wrens, crows, and robins.

Australia has also some immense birds which resemble the ostrich, although they are not quite so large. The cassowary is to be found in Queensland, and the emu is common there and in other parts of Australia. The emu is not so tall as the ostrich. Its legs are shorter and its body thicker and clumsier. Its feathers are much like coarse hair. Its color is dark brown, spotted with gray, and its wings are so short that they are almost invisible when held close to the body.

Emus are quite dangerous. They have strong bills, and they bite. They kick somewhat like a cow and hit so hard that one blow of the foot is enough to kill a dog or man. The best time for hunting the emu is in the morning when the bird comes out to feed on the grass. It is chased on horseback with dogs which are trained to catch it by the neck in such a way that they can not be easily kicked. The squatters are anxious to destroy the emus to save the grass for the sheep, and for this reason they not only shoot them but also hunt their nests and break the eggs. In one county of New South Wales ten thousand emus were once killed in nine months, and at one sheep station fifteen hundred eggs were found and destroyed.

Emu eggs are enormous in comparison with hens’ eggs, but are much smaller than the eggs of an ostrich. The shells are sometimes mounted in silver and used as milk jugs or sugar bowls.

We can not possibly mention all of the seven hundred kinds of birds found in Australia. There is one bird, however, that speaks for himself. This is the laughing jackass, as the people call him. He is a kingfisher, with a head as big as his body but a voice that is many times bigger than both body and head. When he begins to sing, he cooes like a dove and then bursts out into a ha! ha! ha! hoo ! boo ! boo !— a most contemptuous and tantalizing laugh which he keeps up until at last we laugh in reply. This bird eats snakes, lizards, and other such things, and for this reason it is protected by law.

Australia has many mosquitoes, ants, and other insects ; it has venomous snakes, crocodiles, and 240 kinds of lizards, including the goana, some of which are seven feet long.