My friend and colleague Myfany Turpin, of the University of Queensland and the Charles Darwin University School for Policy and Social Research has produced a series of posters of bird knowledge in the Arrernte, Anmatyerr, Alyawarr and Kaytetye languages spoken throughout central Australia.

Individually they portray 25 or so birds found in the areas in which each language is spoken. As a set they reveal the depth of knowledge that Aboriginal people have of the birds that they hunt, share campsites and townships with and which are spiritually important or are involved in or related to traditional ceremonies and beliefs.

The homepage for the “Birds that Tell People Things” project notes that:

In many cultures birds indicate things in the environment and can be harbingers of bad news through their role in mythology. Birds can signal where water can be found, the presence of game or other food, seasonal events, as well as danger or bad news. This series of posters features birds that indicate ecological and social events in four Central Australian Aboriginal languages: Arrernte, Anmatyerr, Alyawarr and Kaytetye. Each poster includes a photograph of the bird, its Aboriginal, scientific and common name, and information about what it signifies with an English translation.

The posters are the result of collaborative work with highly-skilled Aboriginal language speakers, ornithologists and linguists. They are produced by the Cultural Signs Project, based at the School for Social Policy and Research, CDU.

The posters are the first output of the Charles Darwin University “Cultural Signs of Central Australia” project that will:

…document cultural signs in Central Australian Aboriginal languages. These are the social and environmental indicators used by Aboriginal people in Central Australia. For example there are signs that tell people when food is available, predict the weather, warn people of bad events and signal when certain kin are coming. Much of this knowledge is in danger of being lost as Aboriginal society rapidly changes. Many Aboriginal people are concerned that such knowledge should be documented and that resources should be created to assist in the teaching of this knowledge.

I was lucky enough to have a few of my bird photographs included on the posters and I’m more than pleasantly surprised by how well they came out. I’m also pleased at the quality and care taken in this project and the quantity and detail of local Aboriginal knowledge contained in each poster.

These posters deserve to be widely appreciated and used and I hope that many more will be produced – not only for other Northern Territory languages but for other languages across Australia. I think that the posters will be very useful to inform the general public of the depth and nature of traditional bird knowledge, as a tool for land management programs on country and also for use in schools.