I’ve been looking for Australian Owlet-nightjars in the wild for years without success – I’ve heard their strident churring calls often enough when camping in the bush at night but have only seen these birds in the flesh in captivity at the Alice Springs Desert Park, where a few years ago they had a pair as part of a breeding program.

So I was at both disappointed and elated when I returned home after a few weeks away and saw this photo taken by Gloria Morales at Wartapunya waterhole, an hour’s drive away from Yuendumu. Disappointed because I hadn’t been there when she had seen and photographed this bird, elated because, when we get to go back to Wartapunya soon I will stand a good chance of seeing it for the first time in the wild…maybe.

The Australian Owlet-Nightjar, Aegotheles cristatus, is the only member of the family Aegothelidae (Order: Apodiformes) found in Australia and is a common, though rarely seen, bird across the country.

Stephen Debus noted in his chapter on the Owlet-nightjar in Cuckoos, Nightbirds and Kingfishers of Australia (Angus & Robertson, 1994. Editor: Ronald Strahan) that the Owlet-nightjar is:

“…most probably Australia’s most abundant and widespread nocturnal bird…seldom seen except when flushed from its roost by day or caught in car headlights at night when in flies up from a country road.

Owlet-nightjars are apparently sedentary and permanently territorial. Nests are made in tree hollows, rock clefts or, rarely, in old buildings or tunnels in river banks.

And, while in the European imagination at least, the Owlet-nightjar is one of those ineffably cute small creatures that makes it an easy thing to love – even if you have never seen one – for the Warlpiri people living here at Yuendumu the Owlet-nightjar has an entirely different set of cultural meanings.

Rather than the cute and cuddly small bird of the popular European Australian imagination, for the Warlpiri, and many other central Australian language groups, the Owlet-nightjar is a familiar spirit of the Kurdaitcha man – part mercenary contract killer, part quasi-judicial executioner.

That font of all unconfirmed and unreliable wisdom, Wikipedia, says that the Kurdaitcha man:

…is a ritual “executioner” in Australian Aboriginal culture. The word is from the Arrernte people and specifically refers to the shoes worn by the man, woven of human hair and feathers and treated with blood. Other spellings are Cadiche and Kadaitcha.

Kirr-kirr, the Warlpiri computer-based dictionary, gives the following associations for Kurdaitcha (also known in Warlpiri as Janpa):

English: kurdaitcha, bogey man

Definition: Man with special powers to make himself invisible who wears emu-feather foot covering to dissimulate tracks, who travels with harmful intentions

Jarnpa, ngulaji yapa kujaka wapa warru mungangka pakarninjaku-ngarnti yapa-kariki-ngarnti linjarrpaku-ngarnti. Ngulanya jarnpaji.
Jarnpa is a person who walks around at night in order to kill another person and make trouble.

Jarnpa karnalu ngarrirni yapa kujakanyanu yunparni yarrkayikarda.
Jarnpa is what we call a person who sings himself invisible.

Kari-ngantarlipa jarnpa yani – wurulypa yani – karntaku milki-wangkanjawangu.
Let’s go as kurdaitchas – secretly – without saying a word to the women.

“Jarnpangkunganpa yimirr-yungu. Jarnpa ka mirnimpa wirnpirli.” “Kuja warlka kankulu kanyi. Lawa nyampuju. Jarnpawangu.” “Jarnpangkunganpa yijardu nyampurla yimirr-yungu. Kulanganta kapinganpa luwakarla – nganimpa.”
“A kurdaitcha frightened us. There’s a kurdaitcha whistling around here somewhere.” “That’s lies you lot are telling. There’s nothing around here. There’s no kurdaitcha.” “A kurdaitcha really frightened us. It was as though it was going to kill us.”

Nyampu jarnpaku ngurrpa yirnalu nyina. Jarnpa-marda-wangu-ngirninypa. Nyina yirnalu jarnpa-marda-wangu. Nganimpa.
We have nothing to do with kurdaitcha men here. We are not kurdaitcha people. We are not kurdaitcha-type people. Not us.

And for the connection between the Jarlajirrpi (the Owlet-nightjar) and the Kurdaitcha man, Kirr-kirr provides the following entries:

Jarlajirrpi ngulaju jarnpakurlangu jurlpu wita. Mungangka ka purlami “Jurl! Jurl!” Milpa wiri ka nyina kuurrkuurrpa-piyayijala.
The jarlajirrpi is the kurdaitcha bird, it is little. At night it calls out “Jurl! Jurl!”. It has big eyes like an owl.

Kajili purda-nyanyi jarlajirrpi kujaka purlami mungangka, yapa kalu-nyanu wangkami: “Yapa jarnpa ka yanirni. Muurlpa! Yapakujaku!”
When they hear the jarlajirrpi calling out at night people say to each other, “A kurdaitcha man is coming this way. Look out for him!”

Jarlajirrpi ka nyina wilypirirla.
The jarlajirrpi bird lives in the hollow of trees.

Jarlajirrpi ngulaju jurlpu kujaka juuny-mani. Jarnpuku karla wangkanjinani jarlajirrpi kuja, “Juu! Juu!”
Jarlajirrpi is a bird that goes “juu! juu!” The jarlajirrpi bird goes along calling out to a kurdaitcha man like this, “Juu! Juu!”.

There are other birds that are also connected with the Kurdaitcha man story – I’ll leave them for another day.  And there are many other stories – and perhaps variants on this theme – from across Australia – this will be something that will take up most of my time this year as I work on a book, to be published by the CSIRO in 2010, dedicated to recording and exploring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge of birds from across the country.