Night Parrot

To: Philip Veerman <>, 'COG chatline' <>
Subject: Night Parrot
From: John Harris <>
Date: Wed, 12 Feb 2014 04:17:31 +0000
Thanks for your support advice, Philip. I will be happy to write up the story and location if someone wants it.
The suggestion that budgerigar is said to mean ‘good tucker’ used to be  around but I have never seen it in serious literature.
Gould recorded the word as ‘betcherrygah’ western NSW. The myth about its name derives from the bush slang word ‘budgery’ for good, vaguely derived from Aboriginal words. It was still around among bush people when I was a kid, as were a lot of other Aboriginal words which regrettably Australian English has now lost.  But budgery  is still in the Macquarie dictionary. If the first syllables do mean ‘good’ - and I doubt it very much, the whole name is far more likely to mean good bird as the final syllable often has to do with bird names. The Macquarie dictionary notes that too but says it is apocryphal.
But in any case, my mates used Mirrlambing there as a name, a name which I had already been given for a green parrot, and then they added after that it was ‘good tucker’. Mirrlambing, the same name that I had already been given, did not mean anything like good tucker in any language around there. They are only good emergency tucker anyway or incidental bush tucker – not much meat and even less on a budgerigar. Galahs and  Cockatoos were far easier to catch and filled your belly quicker, as did bronze wing Pigeons etc.

From: Philip Veerman <>
Date: Wednesday, 12 February 2014 2:41 pm
To: John Harris <>, 'COG chatline' <m("","canberrabirds");">>
Subject: RE: [canberrabirds] Night Parrot

Hi John,
Well I suggest your story should get a more thorough airing. You should at least send it to John Young, to add to his information. and to what is now Birdlife Australia and could go in their magazine, especially if you have a closer idea of the location. Hopefully attitudes are more open now, although it still would be true to say your sighting could not be verified, but neither should it be dismissed. It is a pity it was disbelieved at the time, maybe more true to say it was easy to dismiss, (though nothing in your story sounds wrong to me). That you say you lost the feathers that would have been proof is very sad. Obviously as the species is still in existence now, so it was then. But it deserves to go better into the record than a write up in a COG chat line. As for "Aboriginal mates knew what they were. “Mirrlambing,  good tucker that one!”". Well I'm sorry to say that does not prove a lot of itself as they say many things are good tucker. That is supposed to be the meaning of the word budgerigar. 
-----Original Message-----
From: John Harris
Sent: Wednesday, 12 February 2014 12:47 PM
To: Tony Lawson; COG chatline
Subject: Re: [canberrabirds] Night Parrot

I have seen the Night Parrot. 
Now before all my esteemed and knowledgeable colleagues descend upon me, no,  I did not see it in Gungahlin and I have not reported it on Percival Hill!
I saw them 46 years ago in the Northern Territory. Yes, I am reminiscing again… But a few folk might find this interesting…

I was teaching in a remote Aboriginal community in the 1960s. One night I was driving back after a weekend camping with two Aboriginal mates and living off wild food. We had left the water hole and were on a rough track through sandy spinifex country. Suddenly, two birds flew up in the headlights and one struck the windscreen. My Aboriginal mates knew what they were. “Mirrlambing, good tucker that one!” they said, leaping from the Landrover. Both birds flew off into the spinifex but the one which had struck the windscreen was dazed and a bit slower to take off and I had a good view of it in the lights. I knew I was seeing the Night Parrot. I should have been more excited than I was. I knew Night Parrots were supposed to be rare but I did not realise just how rarely they were reported.  We didn’t have the internet and Google back then. My Bird Bible had been Cayley’s ‘What Bird is That?’ but it was mum’s book and still back in Sydney with her. 

My confidence in what I was seeing was to do with linguistics, not  ornithology. My deep interest has always been in Aboriginal languages and indeed that was part of the reason for camping, to hear and learn informal speech. The easiest Aboriginal words to collect are the names of things, especially in the natural environment.  I had already collected the word ‘Mirrlambing’ from Hickey, my old informant who reeled off bird names to me.  Hickey spoke 11 different Aboriginal languages and I never really knew which language he named a bird in because he used the ‘proper’ name of the bird that was appropriate to the bird’s own ‘country’.  He only knew English names for the commonest of birds and sometimes it took a long time for me to identify the bird he named. I carried my notebook with me all the time, even in school, and if we saw a bird I would ask the kids to name it and then find it on my list, or sometimes add a new name. Mirrlambing had a blank next to it. I had worked out from my informant that it was a green parrot  and I had been waiting to see one, not really conscious of its alleged rarity. He described it as like a big Budgerigar but fatter so I knew what it wasn’t. I got Mum to mail me Cayley’s book and I saw the picture again for myself. I showed my old friend the pictures and he pointed to the Night Parrot. ‘Mirrlambing’ he said. All that was well before that camping trip when we saw it but that’s what my mates had called it in the Landrover - Mirrlambing.  That’s how I knew what I was seeing.

Some months later at home during the Christmas holidays, I thought it was worth reporting to someone. I found out about the RAOU and wrote a letter. Well they must have had an Unusual Birds Panel like COG has. They were not all that interested but did reply saying that my sighting could not be verified and that I was probably seeing a large Budgerigar. I don’t think it helped that I was a very young man and someone they had never heard of. 

When I went back after the school holidays, my mates told me they had  a few days before been on foot a long way out in the bush and had caught a number of birds with their throwing-sticks drinking at a soak at dusk including two Mirrlambing. They had cooked and eaten them. They used to just throw small birds like that onto the coals. The feathers singed off and in just a few minutes you could rake the birds from the fire and peel off the blackened skin to eat the little bit of flesh.  So I asked them to take me to the soak which we did the following weekend. We saw no Mirrlambing drinking but we did see some tail feathers near the soak where they had caught them. I didn’t bother writing back to the RAOU. I was not very interested in officialdom at the time, just happy in my own birdwatching as an interesting offshoot of my language work.  I kept the tail feathers for a long time with other feathers but somewhere in the last 46 years I have lost them.

I know much more about Aboriginal languages now than I did then. When my mates imitated the call of the night parrot, they made a squeaky high-pitched sound like ‘irr-irr’, rolling the ‘rr’ . I would now say that the word Mirrlambing could be analysed to mean the bird with the call like ‘irr’ or ‘irr-irr’.
I still have no interest really in proving anything to anyone, but I am quietly pleased to be one of the few birders to have  Mirrlambing on their lifetime list – even if my list is only in my head!

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