Note: This is a paper that I gave at the Australasian Ornithological Congress at the Australian National University in December 2003


Good afternoon – I am pleased to be here in the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people.

Ethno-ornithology is a part of the broader and rapidly developing discipline of ethno-biology, which will be familiar, at least in part, to many of you at this conference.

Notwithstanding the quantity and undoubted quality of the work by Australian ornithologists, Aboriginal ornithological knowledge has largely been ignored by European science – in this respect Australia is an ornithological terra nullius – an ‘empty land’.

Almost without exception, none of the Handbook, the Atlases, field guides and the scientific and popular ornithological literature contains any meaningful reference to Aboriginal knowledge of birds.

The legal fiction of terra nullius was finally laid to rest on 2nd June 1992 when the High Court of Australia delivered its decision in Eddie Mabo’s case[1]. In that case the High Court held that Australia was not an ‘empty land’ and recognized prior Aboriginal ownership, continuing management responsibilities and attachment to land.

As the High Court of Australia has recently confirmed, in many parts of Australia the “tide of history”[2]has washed away Aboriginal claims to and knowledge of land in many parts of the country – at least from a European legal perspective.

However, in those areas where the invasion and conquest were less thorough, Aboriginal ownership of land has survived and been recognized by Governments and the Courts. Much Aboriginal knowledge and law has survived and continues to be applied on a day-to-day basis.

This is particularly so in the north, centre and west of the country, where vast tracts of land are owned by Aboriginal people. In many other parts of the country Aboriginal peoples, even where they do not own land according to Australian law, seek to assert their traditional knowledge and law for lands that they, in Aboriginal law, claim as their responsibility.

The tentative recognition of the value of Aboriginal scientific knowledge

In 1949 the anthropologist Donald Thomson, after many years working with Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land, described local knowledge of the land, plants and animals of the region and their classificatory systems:

” There is nothing artificial about this systematic classification. It is entirely that of the natives themselves and shows a critical, almost scientific appreciation of the environment and its resources. The accuracy with which an Arnhem Land hunter could name a given association according to its botanical composition, and the food supply, woods for spears and other purposes, as well as resins and fibre plants that it would yield at any season of the year was astonishing.”[3]

Aboriginal scientific knowledge of the land and its resources are belatedly being accepted as valid and useful tools for land and resource management. The most recognized area of Aboriginal scientific knowledge is Aboriginal botany, where there has been an increasing focus on the documentation and application of Aboriginal knowledge for research on new foods and drugs.

Other examples include the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, which has recently launched an indigenous weather website and the contribution of Bill Harney, a senior Wardaman traditional owner from the “lightning” country west of Katherine in the Northern Territory, who has recently co-authored a book on his astronomical knowledge – illustrating his knowledge of both the land and the night sky.

Aboriginal knowledge of birds in mainstream literature

It at best regrettable and at worst unforgivable that the most complete references to Australian Aboriginal ornithology are found in Gould’s Handbook of 1865 – published 138 years ago.

Too many recent works that refer to Aboriginal knowledge of birds merely contain a list of names in language – there is little interpretation or deeper analysis of that knowledge. Even HANZAB, the major Australian ornithological reference work, disappoints. For example, Appendix 3 to Volume 1 of HANZAB contains 63 “Aboriginal Names” for the Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae, 36 for the Black Swan Cygnus atratus and 43 for the Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa – all valuable resource species for Aboriginal people across Australia.

But these bare lists are presented without any meaningful context – there is no identification of the language group for each name, the location of the original reference or the identity of the original informant – just a list of names from across the country. This may not all be the fault of the HANZAB editors – an examination of the references from which the lists were drawn shows that many of those reports failed to show these details – early volumes of The Emu and other journals contain a number of articles entitled “List of Aboriginal Bird Names” or similar – only rarely is there a reference to a location or language group.

Changes in Aboriginal land management – a role for ornithologists?

We now know of the value of birds as indicators of ecosystem diversity, environmental health and sustainable land management and use.

In recent years, largely through the persistence of Aboriginal people and their representative organizations, Aboriginal people are increasingly exercising or asserting their traditional land management rights and responsibilities. This is particularly so in the north, west and centre of the country for reasons discussed earlier. The challenges they face are immense and often they are expected to manage vast tracts of land with inadequate technical, professional and practical experience, support and resources.

Aboriginal people and their organizations have responded to the challenges of managing their lands by developing responses that match their immediate needs, unique challenges and considerable responsibilities. Increasingly, Aboriginal landowners are looking to integrate western science with their own land management principles and practices – not as clients of western science – but as partners in collaborative and cooperative arrangements.

What ethno-ornithological information is available?

Ethnobiological study is by its nature cross-disciplinary. Notwithstanding the lack of qualitative research on Aboriginal ornithology, there is a considerable amount of extrinsic information, i.e. non-ornithological, available from other sources. This material can often be found in the related disciplines of anthropology, linguistics and history.

Anthropological references include, for example, the earlier work by Donald Thomson, Norman B. Tindale and by the Berndt’s in northern Australia. More recently Julie-Ann Waddy at Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria and Betty Meehan in north-central Arnhem Land have produced valuable ethno-biological research. Another source is the anthropological and historical material contained in submissions and evidence presented to the Courts in claims under various Land Rights legislation and the more recent Native Title claims.

Linguistic material includes the extensive vernacular material produced by Literacy Centres throughout the Northern Territory for use in bilingual education in remote communities, language-specific work produced through Aboriginal agencies such as the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AITSIS) and the vocabulary and dictionary work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

The journals and reports by early explorers and historians can also be of value. These can range from works by individual explorers, early pastoralists and the reports of the government sponsored exploratory expeditions conducted from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The quality and quantity of this material is patchy and can vary depending on individual preference and the overall purpose of each undertaking. The records of birds shot for food as exploratory parties travelled through country can also be a useful source of presence/absence data.

Where to from here?

Aboriginal people are acutely aware of the value of their knowledge and the need to protect it from unauthorised use. Increasingly, this is reflected in the terms of agreements between Aboriginal people and researchers. These agreements typically govern access to land, compliance with cultural and community standards and protection of copyright and other intellectual property. Such issues, while new to many researchers, are in most cases no more onerous than the conditions placed upon research by university ethics committees and similar supervisory bodies.

There are no established Australian protocols for ethno-biological research and, in order to provide some overall framework for ethno-biological research I believe that following issues warrant attention:

  • development of a set of widely applicable principles and protocols for ethno-biological research;
  • identification of methodologies for studying animal/people interactions;
  • treatment/uses/sources of interdisciplinary data;
  • encouragement/training for ethno-biological researchers and students;
  • improved collaboration between ethno-biological and Aboriginal people and organizations; and;
  • identification and prioritization of research objectives in Australian ethno-biology.

Some areas of application for ethno-biological research in ornithology could include:

  • life histories;
  • breeding biology;
  • population ecology;
  • distribution and habitat;
  • migratory studies – particularly in relation to the East-Asian Flyway and flight paths of these migrating birds across inland Australia; and
  • develop better approaches for the incorporation of Aboriginal observations and data into mainstream research.

We still know remarkably little about the Australian avifauna. In many parts of the Australian continent the landscape has changed so much that Aboriginal knowledge may be of little real value, particularly where such knowledge has been washed away and people alienated from their land.

But it is in the vast tracts of land for which Aboriginal people known have direct responsibility for land management that the real opportunities and challenges for the application of Aboriginal ornithology lie.

I am pleased that ‘People and Birds’ and ‘Birds and Landscapes’ are well-represented themes at this conference. I also hope that the AOC to be held in New Zealand in 2005 will develop these themes – particularly in relation to the incorporation of Aboriginal and Maori knowledge of birds into mainstream ornithology.

Thank you.

[1] Mabo’s case, High Court of Australia, 2 June 1992.

[2] Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria, High Court of Australia, 12 December 2002.

[3] Thomson, D. F. (1949) Arnhem Land: Explorations Among an Unknown People. Part II: The People of Blue Mud Bay. The Geographical Journal 113: 1.