Local History: Mr Reuben’s birds

By Michael Akrill, Singleton Historical and Museum Society

AMONGST the varied collection in Singleton Historical Museum is a case of ‘stuffed birds’.

Many older members may remember first seeing them in their original setting, in Mr Albert Reuben’s chemists shop on the corner of John and Pitt Streets where Pathology North is now located.

Following his death in 1930 they were on display next door in the Halter family shop.

Mr Reuben was a talented taxidermist (one who preserves an animal’s body by stuffing and mounting for the purpose of display or study).

It is understood that he preserved and mounted the birds, and the other animals in the shop, himself.

The thought of such a display these days raises eyebrows but it should be remembered that in those days the only way to study creatures at close quarters was examining ‘specimens’ housed in museums and ‘collections’.

Mr Reuben had opened his shop in 1888 and as mentioned above was in business there until his untimely death.

The Singleton Argus dated June 16, 1930 has the headline “TRAGIC DEATH OF MR ALBERT REUBEN-KNOCKED DOWN BY MOTORCYCLE.”

It goes on to say: “The community of Singleton experienced a great shock this morning when it was circulated that Mr Alberbt Reuben, the well known, chemist had died in the Dangar Cottage Hospital as the result of being knocked down by a motorcycle while proceeding to his home last evening.”

He was one of the town’s best known and most respected residents.

This article looks at those 21 birds that were such a feature of his shop.

The when, where and how they were collected is something that we will never know.

In some cases it is highly unlikely that they were collected in the Singleton district or even in the Hunter Valley.

As to how, a few may have been found dead, but it is more likely that they ‘obtained’ by other methods, traps or more likely guns.

The fact that virtually all of them were easily identifiable is a credit to the skill of Mr Reuben.

Chances are that the vast majority are well over a hundred years old.

Australia has been described as ‘The Land of Parrots,’ so it is not surprising that a third of the birds on display are indeed members of that family.

All of them can at times be seen in this district. Eastern Rosellas and Rainbow Lorikeets are common in town, though the latter have only recently again become so.

The other three lorikeets Little, Musk and Scaly- breasted are only occasional visitors.

The Crimson Rosella is still quite common in the Singleton bush, while Red-winged Parrots are birds usually only found west of the range.

At the top of the case is the brilliant little Scarlet Robin, seldom seen in the Valley these days.

The another small bush birds is the tiny Spotted Pardalote which can still be heard at many sites in the district, attention being drawn to them by their high pitched call in the tops of tall trees.

The well known Superb Fairy-wren (just Blue Wren in Mr Reubens time), can often be seen around town.

It is not that many years ago that there were several sites in the Valley were Rainbow Bee-eaters nested in summer (before returning north for the winter), but now they are far less common.

They did not endear themselves to any-one who kept bees and I remember them being shot for the crime of eating bees as recently ago as the sixties.

In actual fact, that was only a small part of their diet.

Another bird that is often heard in the bush, but seldom seen is the Eastern Whipbird. Their ‘whip-crack’ call can be heard in most films featuring the Australian bush.

The brilliant black and yellow plumage of the male Regent Bowerbird can still occasionally be seen in the Hunter Valley.

The Regent Honeyeater on the other hand, while occasionally visiting the valley is one of Australia’s most endangered birds.

Both are thought to be named for the Prince Regent of Britain (remember the Madness of King George) later King George IV.

In the middle of the case is a Common Bronzewing, a pigeon that was apparently very good eating and a welcome change to the diet of most country folk.

Almost hiding behind the frame at the bottom of the case are two tiny birds of swamps and marshes, Spotted and Spotless Crake.

The large duck at the bottom left hand corner is a Rajah Shelduck, these days only found in northern Queensland.

That just leaves the three birds that made me scratch my head before identifying them.

The large white bird is obviously an egret, but is it Intermediate (called Plumed in Reubens day) or Great.

There are subtle differences which has me favouring the latter, even though it seems smaller.

The one bird of prey featured is obviously either a Collared Sparrowhawk or a Brown Goshawk.

Both were called ‘chickenhawk’ and mercilessly hunted by farmers and town poultry keepers alike.

There is a difference in size, but also a large contract in size between male and female, the latter considerably larger.

The sparrowhawk has one elongated toe leading me to suggest that species.

There is one more bird that is still somewhat of a mystery. It is also at the bottom of the case.

It is also probably the worst preserved, making ID even more difficult.

I have plumped for a bird that is now very seldom seen in the valley, a Ground Cuckoo-shrike, more likely to be seen west of the range.

Those then are Mr Reuben’s birds. Many of them would have been unknown to most of his customers and there were few ways of finding out what they were.

It was not until 1931, the year after his death, that a book was published to assist the masses in identifying birds that they saw.

That was Neville Caley’s classic “What Bird is That,” the definitive book on bird ID in Australia for the next 40 years, with a revised edition still in print. Most homes with even the slightest interest in birds had a copy.

At the start of this article, mention was made of the fact that Mr Reuben was killed as the result of being hit by a motorcycle.

Following an inquest, the rider, a dairy hand from Ravensworth, was charged with manslaughter.

At a trial in August, the young man pleaded not guilty ‘to having feloniously slain’ Albert Philip Reuben.

He was found not guilty.

Many older residents remember Reuben’s shop, the Museum preserves that memory with Mr Reuben’s Birds.

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