Australia is home to many unique and spectacular birds, reptiles, insects and animals and we are privileged to have many different creatures as regular visitors to our campus locations. Living so closely with our native animals makes it important to understand a little bit about them so that we can protect their habitats and life cycles as well as ensuring our own health, while still enjoying the experience of seeing these amazing creatures out and about. This information sheet will give you a very brief introduction to some of the more common species that you may encounter and how to safely engage with them. It is important to note that all our native wildlife is protected by the Nature Conservation Act 2014 and the Animal Welfare Act 1992.
The beautiful “ANU ducks” on campus are a very common feature of campus life in Canberra. As are the Black Swans. These are generally very passive birds and will stay well away from you if you approach them. However, in springtime (September – November) when their babies are young, the parent birds are on high alert and can bite if you get too close which may require first aid. As cute as they are, getting close to baby birds to take photos or otherwise admire them will only cause the babies and parents distress and will provoke them to attack, so give these new families plenty of space and be aware of them on or near the roads when riding or driving. You may see droppings from ducks in the grassy areas around campus and while this may be unpleasant to accidentally sit down on, it is not harmful to you.
If you’ve lived in Australia for more than a year, you’ll likely be familiar with the relentless activity of our native birds defending their young during spring. Magpies often get the most publicity as they will mark out their territory and can aggressively attack anyone or anything that comes into it. We should respect that this behaviour is their way of being very diligent and protective parents and note that at other times of year they are not aggressive at all, and often treat us to their beautiful morning song!
Magpies (and the ducks above) are a native bird and all native birds, their eggs, young and their nests are protected by the Nature Conservation Act 2014 and the Animal Welfare Act 1992. It is illegal to interfere with them or harm them in any way. During their nesting season, which lasts anywhere from late August to the end of October, magpies will swoop and attack pedestrians, cyclists, pets and any other intruders on their territory. Individual birds will differ in how aggressively and how closely they protect their nests, some birds having a very broad territory and no tolerance for anyone or anything coming into it, while others will only attack if you get very close to their particular tree.
We frequently see injuries to ears, faces and potentially eyes from these attacks. Where a swooping magpie territory has been identified, ACT Government or the ANU will post signs giving a warning. If possible, find an alternative route to avoid the magpie’s territory or, if you are walking or running, carry an umbrella or branch overhead to protect yourself from attacks. If you are cycling, you can put cable ties across your helmet to stop the birds getting to your head and face. Whether walking, running or cycling, if you slow down on approach to the magpie’s territory, dismount from your bike and walk quietly, you present yourself as less of an imminent threat and some birds will be less likely to attack. But if you can’t avoid the area, you may just have to “run the gauntlet” until the season passes. Image source.
Australia is home to a range of beautiful possums ranging in size from large brushtail possums (the size of a very large cat) through to tiny species smaller than the palm of your hand. Possums are a nocturnal animal, so you will not often see them out and about. However, during mating season or through winter they may set up home in our roof spaces or nearby to houses. Their running about, fights, and mating can sometimes cause a great deal of unwanted noise and some alarm! Possums are not an aggressive animal but they will respond if they feel threatened and the larger species can bite or scratch, so give them plenty of space and if you have a problem possum in your home or local area, remember these are native animals and protected by law, so contact the appropriate authorities or services to have it relocated.
From the ACT Government website – “Canberra has often been called the 'Bush Capital' because it has so many urban reserves. It also qualifies as the 'kangaroo capital' — compared to any other city, Canberra has a lot of Eastern Grey Kangaroos. Creating a sustainable 'Bush Capital' means being aware of and understanding how to live alongside our local wildlife. We may encounter kangaroos on our roads, while walking in a park or nature reserve and sometimes even in our own back yards.”
Kangaroos are an iconic Australian animal and much loved by locals and tourists alike. In Canberra we have high nunbers of kangaroos (mainly Eastern Greys). Their populations are managed by local government agencies, however you will often see them in our urban areas and they can be a risk to traffic. Larger males in particular are also capable of inflicting serious damage on people, so admire the wild groups of kangarooos you see around town from a safe distance. Image source and further information.
While the various Australian spiders are often portrayed as aggressive and highly predatory, the vast majority of our more than 2000 spider species are peaceful creatures that are harmless to humans and a vital part of our ecosystem. In fact, some of the harmless ones will even predate on the harmful ones, so they’re good to have around! Common spiders that you may see around the house are “daddy long legs”, a very thin-legged, small bodied spider and the huntsman – a much larger spider (up to 15 cm across) with a larger hairy body. However, both of these common species are helpful housemates and cannot harm humans.
Common spiders to be wary of are the redback – a small (1 – 2 cm) black spider with distinctive red mark on its back, and characteristic “messy” looking webs. Redbacks frequent dark hidden spaces such as plant pots, cornices, and underneath outdoor furniture. A redback bite requires immediate first aid and medical treatment.
Common in Sydney and other parts of Australia is the Funnel Web spider. These are a larger (3-4 cm) black bodied spider that are known to be aggressive at times. They have a slightly hairy body and characteristic funnel shaped webs. A bite from a funnel web also requires immediate first aid and medical treatment.
While there are many myths and online stories about our 8 legged friends, even with the few dangerous species that we have it is important to remember that these creatures are part of our beautiful natural world and play an important role in the ecosystem. It is also important to keep in mind that since the introduction of antivenom, there have been no deaths from a confirmed spider bite in Australia. Image source.
From ACT Government – “Being the bush capital Canberra has an abundance of native wildlife, including eight species of snakes. If you do come across a snake, don't think of it as a showdown, just calmly back away and give it a wide berth. If you see one in your yard, move pets and children away for an hour or so as it's most likely just passing through, looking for food, so just leave it alone. When walking, wear enclosed shoes and avoid walking in long grass. Snakes are an important part of the environment, give them their space and they will give you yours.
Eight species of snakes are known to inhabit the ACT, with five regarded as potentially dangerous to humans including the Eastern Brown Snake, Common Tiger snake, Red-bellied Black snake, White-lipped snake and Highlands Copperhead snake. However, while all snakes in the ACT are venomous, except the blind snake, they are shy, nonaggressive creatures that will quickly retreat if not provoked.
The Eastern Brown Snake (pictured) is the most frequently seen in suburban gardens. In the ACT, the Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) varies from brown to grey and can even be blackish, dark brown or orange. Young snakes may be entirely brown or may have a black patch on their head and a black band on their neck. Black bands across the body may or may not be present.” Image source: Bernard Dupont on Flickr.
In the water
For those in our Northern Territory or Kioloa Campuses, or anyone planning to travel in Australia, it is important to be aware of some of the incredibly interesting, but sometime dangerous species that exist in our waters. In the Northern Territory and Northern Queensland in particular, crocodiles and several species of jellyfish, fish, and octopus can pose a threat to human life, while any of our coastal areas can see shark activity. If you follow the guidance of local experts and any signage, always wear sturdy shoes and take care when walking around rockpools and shallow coastal areas, you can safely enjoy the spectacular reefs, rivers and aquatic ecosystems that attract so many people to this country. Attacks from sharks, crocodiles, and other aquatic species are still considered rare, however it is important to take these concerns and any safety advice or restrictions provided seriously as the outcome of any such attacks can easily result in a fatality. Image source.
Some of our native creatures are dangerous to humans, and a bite or other defensive or aggressive behaviour may cause injury and require prompt treatment.
Snake bite: seek immediate medical help by calling 000. Not all Australian snakes are venomous but you should follow the basic first aid techniques, just in case. Don’t wash the skin, as traces of venom left behind might be needed by medical personnel to identify the snake. Use a pressure immobilisation bandage and splint the limb. If the person was bitten on the torso, make sure your bandaging doesn’t restrict their breathing.
See Healthdirect's Snake bites page for more detailed information about treating snake bites.
Funnel-web spider bite: firmly bandage the affected area. Splint if possible. Make sure the person lies still, because not moving will help to slow the venom moving through the body. Seek immediate medical help by calling 000.
Red-back and white-tailed spider: wash the bitten area thoroughly. Do not bandage because pressure will increase pain. Apply an icepack. Seek immediate medical help by calling 000.
- Never cut a bite, try to “suck out” poison or tourniquet a limb.
- Don’t give the person anything to eat or drink.
- Try to keep the person calm and still.
- Seek immediate medical help by calling 000.
See the Better Health Channel's bites and stings page for more first aid information.
Image source: Roger Brown on Flickr.
Sadly, part of the price of wild animals living so close to humans, is the incidence of injured wildlife, particularly on or near our roads. If you see an animal injured or in distress, please keep yourself safe if approaching them, particularly on or near a road. Be aware that larger animals such as kangaroos can still hurt you by lashing out in fear even if seriously injured. Call a wildlife rescue agency for advice on how to best assist the animal and follow their instructions.
- In the ACT call ACT Wildlife on 0432 300 033 for a 24 hour hotline.
- Outside of the ACT call WIRES on 1300 094 737 for a 24 hour wildlife rescue.
For more information
Want to learn more about Australia's diverse wildlife? Click on the topics of interest below.
- ACT Government's Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate
- Australian Museum
For information on injured wildlife and more information on native animals:
- ACT Wildlife
- WIRES (Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service)