Official bird names are fine as shorthand, but like most shorthand terms
they have limitations. To an American or British birdwatcher, that
little streaky bird perched high on a grass stem is a cisticola (albeit
pronounced differently), but for some Asian people the same bird is a
fantail or a warbler. And as for locals, the first bushie I asked [20
years ago, mind you] called it a 'lesser grocery bill!' Meaning he hadn't
the foggiest! Local names may be misleading, but many are not only
colourful but in my humble opinion, may be more descriptive of the bird
than the official one, 'owl-faced finch' for 'Double-barred' being one
example that comes to mind.
For most visiting birdwatchers I use the official name for Australia's
only native stork, occasionally the scientific name (which is quite
poetic), or Jabiru (Australasian)!. But with my Kunwinjku relatives I
call the bird Djagana, a stable bird name if there ever was one,
considering it like the rest of the language has been used for thousands
Indeed every language group across the Top End has their own names for
But some have lost their language, an example being my daughter-in-law
and her siblings who also call the bird 'Jabiru'. Although their father
(from the Roper River area) spoke Nundi all the kids grew up speaking
Kriol, and Nundi died with the old people.
When working on names for 'Birds of Australia's Top End' I insisted that
my Kunwinjku son go back to elders and ask for names he didn't know. And
where elders like my seventy + year old sisters had forgotten, I asked
them to ask other elders who hadn't.
When I go to help indigenous people with a birdwatching/ecotourism
enterprise in PNG next month I won't be suggesting that they drop their
bird names in favour of globalised ones (if they exist). Instead I'll do
as I've done with my Kunwinjku relatives who are starting a tour
enterprise in NW Arnhem Land, that is suggest that they make a written
list of their own names and suggest that visitors do them the courtesy of
at least learning some.
As many birds have two or more names depending on sex, age behaviour,
whether they have a story, I wouldn't suggest an indigenous experience
for those birders who want instant recognition. Incidentally most
indigenous people here know the names for each bird in more than one
language so if I say 'djut-djut' (Brown Falcon) to a Jawoyn person I know
s/he will understand.
As for Nundi, one word lives on in our household, 'Jungalu' meaning
'little one, black one barramundi' (saratoga), a baby name given to my
blonde-haired, blue-eyed son by his doting uncle. We don't use it much
any more seeing Rowan is now a strapping teenager. But the picture it
conjures up of a lonely old man, wheelchair bound and with no one to
speak his innermost thoughts, remains.
Denise Goodfellow (Lawungkurr Maralngurra)
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