Subject: Blackface
From: Lawrie Conole <>
Date: Thu, 30 Jun 2005 15:17:15 +1000
Going back to Tim Low's original thesis about making birds (and therefore the biota in general) more interesting and accessible to the punters, he made a very interesting and accurate observation - that most Australians are completely disconnected from nature.  I couldn't agree more!  The myth that we have in Australia an outdoors/outback-orientated culture is clearly a load of old cobblers.  Most Australians live in cities or towns, and wouldn't recognise a member of the indigenous biota if it stood up in their corn flakes! 

Following on from that though is that regardless of what the beasts are called, they're still not particularly interested.  Tim is talking about codifying something which already exists informally across the land.  I always tailor my nomenclature to the audience I'm addressing.  "Pet" names and abbreviations (and rhyming slang names, etc.) do engage people; but only if they're receptive to begin with, IMHO.

The debate here over the last day or so shows how vexed the issue of standardised common names is - an almost oxymoronic concept to begin with.  Can't we just accept that there are basically three systems of classification for the Australian avifauna:
  • scientific binomials - arbitrated by the international/national scientific communities,
  • recommended English names (RENs) - recommended by the national peak ornithological association (professionals and part-timers), and
  • the various local, regional, state and community based informal/vernacular names - managed by those who use them.
All are appropriate for the varying groups who use them, and to some extent are translatable amongst each other (let's keep cataloguing them).  Indigenous (Aboriginal) names fall into the third category, and as local/regional terms (with gender, age, seasonal and totemic qualifiers) are hardly likely to be spontaneously adopted as national RENs - nor need they be.  Derivative terms using compounded European words (robin, thrush, shrike, etc.) are of course nonsensical biologically - but still highly culturally relevant in this Anglo-Saxon frontier society - they're also well and truly entrenched, and unlikely to be rooted out by some new wave of ornithological inquisitions.  The logic of Pygmy-goose versus Whistling-Duck is of course a bit tortuous, but as quasi-systematics tries to convey that Pygmy-geese aren't really Geese, but Whistling-Ducks definitely are Ducks.

Publications like 'Emu', 'Corella' and 'Australian Field Ornithology' mandate the use of the standardised names from the first two categories.  The third category is alive and well in various locales across the country.  Sounds like diversity to me ... which can't be too bad a thing.

The system is working adequately at three levels, and therefore isn't broken, and axiomatically doesn't need to be fixed!

My $0.20 worth ...

Lawrie Conole
Senior Ecologist
Ornithology & Terrestrial Ecology

Ecology Australia Pty. Ltd.
Flora and Fauna Consultants
88B Station Street
FAIRFIELD VIC 3078 Australia
E-mail: m("","lconole");">
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