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.
Bima, still bearing scars on her head, became Wayayi, the curlew bird that still roams the forest at night, wailing in remorse for her misdeeds and for the child that she lost.”
However there is another far bleaker picture of the contemporary manifestation of beliefs associated with Wayayi on the Tiwi islands.
In the mid-2000s the Tiwi islands, like many small remote Aboriginal communities across northern Australia were hit with a dramatic spike in the number of seemingly inexplicable youth suicides.
In 2006 Cathy Scott-Levy and Adrian Levy of The Guardian travelled to the Tiwi islands to examine how it was that two the small islands had what was then “the highest suicide rate in the world”. You can read all of this chilling report here but for present purposes I want to look at how they record the role of Wayayi in these extraordinarily disturbing events.
The land of the dead
On April 11, Gordon Pilakui had girlfriend trouble. According to his family, the 24-year-old had been arguing with her since they got together. He was jealous. She didn’t care. Their ability to make peace was skewed, his friends say, by too much beer and spliff. But no one expected Gordon Pilakui to die.
April 11 was a Saturday night and they are always the most volatile in Nguiu, capital of the Tiwi Islands, twin full stops of sand and swamp 26 miles off the coast of Darwin, north Australia. The evening began at 4pm with three hours at the town’s only social club, speed-drinking Victoria Bitter out of plastic skiffs. Afterwards, Gordon and his girlfriend took home a crate of Cascade beer. Then an improvised bong was sparked up in a bucket, and Gordon and his friends smoked until they entered a parallel world where most of the 2,500 islanders prefer to spend their time.
Within an hour and a half, according to his cousin Michael, Gordon was off his head and raging. He ran to an electricity pole and began climbing up towards the 11,000-volt cables. A crowd of children who had been drop-kicking plastic bottles nearby gathered to watch. For 10 minutes Gordon swayed and swore, babbling about being haunted by a curlew. Then he dived off, slamming into the ground, his skull splitting like a pomegranate.
The dreamtime story that everybody knows on the Tiwi Islands is The Death Of Jinani, a tale from Parlingarri, the time of their ancestors: Tiwis’ Adam and Eve, known as Purrukapali and Bima, fought after the death of their baby son Jinani. The infant, so the story goes, had been left to die in the blazing sun after his mother abandoned him to have an affair with her husband’s brother. In revenge, Purrukapali struck Bima down and decreed that death would come to the whole world. Cradling his son’s body, Purrukapali committed suicide, walking into the sea, crying out shortly before drowning, “You must follow me. As I die, so must all of you.” Since those days, a curlew forever circles the islands, screaming in remorse – the bird that Gordon Pilakui, in his delirium, said he could hear moments before he killed himself.
The current wave of suicides began in June 2005 after William Holpumwurri hanged himself. Within three weeks there were 60 copycat attempts, but for each only the barest explanation is recorded. Anna Maria, 45, “felt lonely”. Marlene, 22, was “angry with her boyfriend”. Two days later, Francis, 46, who had attempted suicide on three previous occasions, was found next to Nguiu’s boat shed, threatening to cut his throat, screaming incomprehensibly “about spirits”. The day after, Georgina, 20, threatened to hang herself with a belt after her father “refused her a cigarette”.
Some islanders were determined to die. In November 2005, Fidelis, 31, was found at home by police with a rope around his neck; once before, he’d swum out to sea hoping to re-enact Purrukapali’s death. On December 2, Freddy, 26, a paraplegic, wheeled himself into the forest with a rope but was unable to heave himself into the noose. Three days later, Deborah, 22, was thwarted, too, after arguing with her mother. On December 16, Marcus, 30, had to be talked down from an electricity pole near the club, raving about the sound of the curlew.
How did the story of Purrukapali come back to haunt the island? Boniface Alimankinni looks grim. “By the time we were all proper drunk, the only story we could remember was about death – Purrukapali. But we even muddled up this history. Young people, feeling hopeless, began to tell each other to follow their ancestors and kill themselves like Purrukapali. But the real story said something else. The true story was about creation, how our first man died to create the curlew, from the spirit of our first woman, his wife, and how the moon was created from the spirit of Purrukapali’s treacherous brother. This was the real story. How can we sort it out?” he asks. “How can we change the ending of the story?”
In other parts of Aboriginal Australia beliefs about the Bush Stone-Curlew are no less significant – but perhaps less malevolent.
For the Warlpiri people from the Tanami Desert to the north-west of Alice Springs in central Australia the Wirntiki – as the Bush Stone-Curlew is known to them – is a central ancestral being in their religious belief and practice. But beyond the sacred the Wirntiki – also known as the Ngamirliri – has other significance, including providing a relational link between two iconic species of the western desert:
Kajili yapangku purda-nyanyi Ngalmirliri wangkanja-kurra: “Kiwirlirli?”, ngulaju maliki panu kalu palka nyina.”
If someone hears the Stone-Curlews going “kiwirlirli” then there are many dogs around. There are many baby dingoes gathered at that place.
And this as a cautionary tale for mothers:
Ngamirlirli ka kiwirlirli-kiwirlirli-wangka mungangka. Kajilpa Ngamirlirli wangkayarla mungangka ngurra-wana kutu, kajilpa ngatinyanurlu purda-nyangkarla jamulu, kajika tururr-ngunamirra-jala kurduju – Ngamirlirli kajilpa kiwirlirli-kiwirlirli-wangkayarla.
The Ngamirlirli bird calls out at night going kiwirlirli-kiwirlirli. If it calls out like this at night somewhere near where people are sleeping and if a mother hears it and does nothing about it, then her child might throw a trembling fit – that’s if the curlew calls out.