Bird of the Week: the Bush Stone Curlew as a harbinger of death…and more
The Bush-Stone Curlew Burhinus grallarius is found across Australia apart from the drier parts of western Australia and the Simpson Desert. Once common in the settled and agricultural regions its presence there has been reduced by land-clearing and modern land-management practices.
Like many Australian birds it has been given a bewildering variety of names – Bush Thick-knee, Southern Stone-Curlew, Weelo and Willaroo being among the most familiar.
These last two are most likely onomatopoeic derivatives from the bird’s very distinctive call, which has been described as akin to the call of a screaming woman or baby, and can lead to a very unsettled night in the bush if a mob of these birds are making their unique dueting calls nearby.
If you want to hear the Bush Stone-curlew’s call follow the link here.
Bush Stone-Curlews are active mainly at night and are more often heard than seen. As these photos show they have a very cryptic plumage and when they are hunched close to the ground at their daytime roost you can walk within a metre or so of them and not notice them as they blend into the leaf and ground litter that is their preferred roost and nesting habitat.
In many Australian Aboriginal cultures Bush Stone-Curlews have close associations with death.
One example is the story of the Curlew Wayayi on the Tiwi Islands to the north of Darwin. The following story comes from Munupi Arts & Crafts Association at Pirlangimpi (Garden Point) on Melville Island.
Mudungkala, an old blind woman arose from the ground at Murupianga in the South East of Melville Island. Clasping her three infants to her breast and crawling on her knees she travelled slowly north. The fresh water that bubbled up in the track she made became the tideways of the Clarence and Dundas Straits, dividing the two islands from the mainland.
PURRUKAPALI AND BIMA
Purrukapali was Mudungkala’s only son. Every day his wife Bima went out gathering food for him, accompanied by their young son Jinani. In the same camp lived an unmarried man, Japara, who used to persuade Bima to leave her child under the shade of a tree and go into the forest with him.
On one very hot day Bima neglected her son too long and he died in the hot sun. On hearing of the child’s death, Purrukapali became so enraged that he struck his wife on the head with a throwing stick and hounded her into the forest.
In an effort to help the anguished father, Japara promised to restore the dead child to life within three days, but Purrukapali was adamant and the two men soon became locked in a deadly struggle.
Purrukapali picked up the dead body of his son and, walking backwards into the sea, he decreed that death should come to the whole world. As his son had died, the whole of creation would die and, once dead, never again would come to life. There was not death before this time.
The place where Purrukapali died, on the east coast of Melville Island, became a whirlpool so strong that anybody who approached it in a canoe would be drowned. When Japara saw what happened he changed himself into the moon. But he did not escape the decree of Purrukapali, for even though his is eternally reincarnated, he has to die for three days every month. One can see on the face of the moon man the wounds that he received in this fight with Purrukapali.
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