Kanpanparlala call – Bird Observers Club of Australia

The Crested Bellbird, Oreoica gutturalis, is found throughout the arid zone that makes up much of Australia away from the eastern coastal strip. Males are  unmistakable, with a ‘punk-like’ crest, while females and immature birds are less distinctly coloured than males, without the black breast colouring and having a smaller, unraised black crest.

The Crested Bellbird is endemic to mainland Australia and is relatively common west of the Great Dividing Range, in the south of tropical northern Australia, and through South Australia to the west coast of Western Australia. They are found in acacia, particularly mulga, shrublands, eucalypt woodlands, spinifex and chenopod (saltbush) plains or dunes.

One peculiar, and as yet unexplained, habit that Kanpanparlala has when nesting is that their nests often have live, hairy caterpillars placed around the rim. Some possible explanations are that the adults gather them as a food storage for the sitting bird or as a defence for the nest.

While it can seen without any great degree of difficulty throughout its range, it is a bird more commonly heard than seen. It has a very distinctive call, from which its Warlpiri name of Kanpanparlala is an onomatopoeic derivation.

There are many reports of Kanpanparlala’s significance to Aboriginal groups across Australia. One of the earliest references I have found is from the early explorer and amateur anthropologist Herbert Basedow. Basedow has only recently has been accorded due regard for his work – notably in this exhibition of his wonderful photographs at the National Museum of Australia that will tour regional Museums and galleries through to the end of 2010.

Basedow was trained as a geologist but quickly became a skilled ethnographic observer and photographer. In his Anthropological Notes Made on the South Australian Government North-west Prospecting Expedition into the north -west of the then unified South Australia and the Northern Territory he notes that:

Many native words have a direct origin in their formation. They are imitative of birds. express characteristic actions, or imply similarity to other familiar objects. The bell-bird (Oreoica petroica) is called “ban-ban-balelle,” the value and distribution of the separate syllables of this word corresponding to the never-ceasing call of that bird.

And over at Lasseteria, ‘the Lasseter encyclopeadia’ dedicated to the legacy of that ill-fatedI found the following notes from Basedow:

The call of the Crested Bellbird as recorded by Basedow on the 1903 Government North West Prospecting expedition; “SATURDAY, JUNE. 27TH. We are up with the melodious call of the bell bird, (Oreoica cristata). The rhythm of the principal call, regardless of its several variations in fullness and quality might be represented numerically by 1; 2. – 1,2,3. And just this characteristic has appealed to the Aluridjas who call the bird “ban-ban-balele”.

There are several Aboriginal names for the bird, mostly based on the rhythm of the call such as, ‘Burn-burn-boolala’, ‘Pan-pan-boolala’, ‘Pan-pan-panella’, etc, the Pitjantjara name the bird ‘Panpanpalala’ and Bunbunbililila. The Bellbird intruded on Coote’s solitude during his enforced stay at Ayers Rock, “…now there came that familiar ‘ klonk-ker-lonk-ker-lonkylonk’ – the bellbird was commencing his mournful Angelus. Soon it would be dusk and their calls more frequent”.

Basedow is apparently the only writer who mentions the name Ban-ban-balele until Idriess titles chapter 25 in Lasseter’s Last Ride, “Ban-ban-balele”. This chapter recounts Lasseter and a small band of Aboriginals setting out across the desert to search for yams. “As they stepped out on the desert proper, behind them a bell sounded, sweet, pure, and lingering. The liquid notes rang out again. “Ban ban belele!” The bell bird seemed to be calling them back. Instant gloom settled on the tribe”.

I haven’t tracked the different specific scientific names (O. petroica, O. cristata) or the etymology of the various Aboriginal spellings and pronunciations that Basedow and others use.

In 2001, as part of a series  examining Australian sacred sites the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Radio program The Spirit of Things, presented by Rachael Kohn, she talked to visitors and traditional owners of Uluru in central Australia. (The references to “Language” are to the words of Mark Kuliitya as translated by Megan Hatton – nowadays I trust the ABC would give the language speaker both an appropriate credit and also a full translation of his words.)

Amongst the many tour groups which operate out of Ayer’s Rock Resort, Anangu Tours provides a unique cultural experience, pairing a traditional owner with a translator. Starting at five in the morning to catch the sunrise over Uluru, the Liru walk takes you through bushland around the base of the rock, and with Mark, and his translator Megan, the story of Wati Lunkara and PanPanPaLaLa, unfolds.

Megan Hatton: And that’s the bird’s name, PanPanPaLaLa. The crested bellbird in English. So you might hear him singing later on. But in creation times of course he’s Wati PanPanPaLaLa, the crested bellbird man.


Megan Hatton: Mark’s saying that PanPanPaLaLa then in creation times was out hunting, and he was hunting for emus, you can see the emu footprints just there. Now he speared that emu from a distance, and that spear with that barb on the end gets stuck in that animal, and Mark said that PanPanPaLaLa followed that emu all the way to a place where there’s a water hole. Then he has to catch up to that animal, and with his club, it’s one swift blow to the back of the neck, like that, and that’s how you finish the animal off. Mark says that’s grandfather’s law.


Megan Hatton: OK, so Mark says right there then, that’s where PanPanPaLaLa cooked up that emu meat. He would have prepared that animal and cooked him the same way emu meat is still prepared and cooked, still to this day.

But Mark says, once the animal was cooked, PanPanPaLaLa carried that emu meat all the way to Uluru, but he approached Uluru on the southern side of the rock and Mark says down at ground level PanPanPaLaLa made himself a windbreak, he made himself a big fire and he had all that emu meat there, chopped up into pieces. But PanPanPaLaLa was exhausted after hunting all day so he lay down beside the fire and fell fast asleep.


Megan Hatton: OK, so Mark says that PanPanPaLaLa is fast asleep by the fire there. Wati Lunkara’s rested now, he’s climbed back down Uluru and he’s decided to walk around this way this time, looking for footprints again. He’s walking around, walking around; all of a sudden he sees these footprints and he’s like Hey, I know this person, this is PanPanPaLaLa, the crested bellbird man.

So he follows, follows, those footprints right into PanPanPaLaLa’s camp to find PanPanPaLaLa sound asleep. He tries to wake him up: ‘Come on man, get up, get up! It’s me Lunkara. I’ve been walking all that way from Chichiara to come and be your friend. Get up, we’ll have a yarn, come on!’

Rachael Kohn: That’s Megan Hatton, telling the story of Wati Lunkara, the blue tongue lizard man, and PanPanPaLaLa, just one of the Aboriginal stories that provides a spiritual explanation for the extraordinary markings on Australia’s most unusual geological formation, Uluru.

Well according to the story, PanPanPaLaLa found out that Wati Lunkara had his emu meet and he decided to smoke him out of his hiding place at the top of the Uluru.

Megan Hatton: Mark says that PanPanPaLaLa blew on that fire stick then, got a flame happening, and all those soft grasses at the base of the rock there, PanPanPaLaLa set them all on fire. Slowly, slowly that fire built up, the flames, the smoke, the fumes, and that’s what that white stain is on the side of the rock still to this day. Mark says to the right hand side of that white stain you can see those footprints climbing up and down that rock too, from when he was carrying that stolen meat up there.

For the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert – to the north of the country that Basedow travelled though, the Crested Bellbird is know as ‘Kanpanparlala‘, or more widely, ‘Pakupaku‘. The Warlpiri Dictionary entry for Pakupaku is:

Pakupaku ngulaju jirripirdi jarnpakurlangu. Ranpuranpu-wangka kalu. Jarnpaku karla wangkami kuja: “Yalinyalu pakakarra!”

The crested bellbird belongs to the kurdaitcha man. It calls out loudly. It say this to the kurdaitcha: “Kill that one there!”

Another reference states:

The “pakupaku” bird of a ‘kurdaitcha’ man calls out like when it chirps incessantly loud and clear. It goes, “Pakpakpalala, pakapakpalala, yaljarn-pakakarra, yaljarn-pakakarra.”

There are several other bird species associated with the Kurdaitcha-men and it is well known that the shoes that Kurdaitcha men wear are made from Emu down feathers. I look forward to finding out more about this and other bird species over the next few months as I travel through the southern NT and South Australia researching my book on Aboriginal bird knowledge, to be published by CSIRO Publishing in 2010.

Got a story about the Crested Bellbird or any other Australian bird? Send a comment!