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The Northern Myth

Nov 19, 2017

Return of the Storm-bird – the Channel-billed Cuckoo comes south for the summer

I've been very interested in cuckoos generally—and Channel-billed Cuckoos in particular—for a few years, especially in relation to the knowledge that Aboriginal language groups here in the Northern Territory and beyond have about them. I'd love to hear any information that groups outside of the areas discussed in the post may have—feel free to drop me a line or post a comment.

Bob Gosford — Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

They’re back and coming for a wake-up call near you soon!!

Early one morning a week or so ago I heard the distinctive cry of my favourite migratory bird, the Channel-billed Cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae somewhere up the block from my house in the northern suburbs of Alice Springs. I’ve been hearing them most mornings—and now evenings—since.

Alice Springs is about as far south as they’ll travel in the Northern Territory, though they’ll be making their noisome way as far west as around Broome and right down the eastern seaboard to Melbourne. The are unmistakable in flight though they are often confused—particularly by call—with their similarly raucous migratory cuckoo cousins, the Pacific (or Eastern) Koel Eudynamys orientalis.

I’ve been very interested in cuckoos generally—and Channel-bills in particular—for a few years, especially in relation to the knowledge that Aboriginal language groups here in the Northern Territory and beyond have about them. I’d love to hear any information that groups outside of the areas discussed in the post may have—feel free to drop me a line or post a comment.

What follows is an edited version of a paper that I gave at the 30th Annual Conference of the Society of Ethnobiology, held at the University of California, Berkeley in March 2007.

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The Channel-billed Cuckoo/Stormbird/Kurrakurraja is the largest of the Cuculidae and of the monotypic genus Scythrops and like many cuckoos is an obligate brood parasite—that is, the female only lays her eggs in the nest of a host species—in the case of Kurrakurraja usually in the nests of crows, ravens and other large corvids.

The Kurrakurraja has a fairly limited range—as this map shows it’s range is restricted to the island of Papua-New Guinea, the islands of eastern Indonesia and, during its breeding migration in the southern monsoonal wet-season, the north and eastern seaboard of Australia.

What this map does not represent accurately is the known distribution of the Kurrakurraja’s range throughout the centre and south of the Northern Territory and, most likely, through the spread of islands in eastern Indonesia.

Certainly Kurrakurraja has been known to Aboriginal peoples in the centre of the Northern Territory for many years.

I now want to turn to some of my findings in relation to Aboriginal knowledge of the Kurrakurraja in Australia. At present I’ve restricted m research to knowledge in the north of Australia—mainly because it is the most readily accessible. As is apparent from this slide there is a great similarity in the names used for Kurrakurraja.

Name Language Group Location
Kura:kura, Kurrakurrul and GurraGurra Warmun & Ord River regions, Western Australia
Kura:djua Wik-mungkan? Cape York area, Queensland
Gurralk Jawoyn Katherine area, Northern Territory
Kurakurak Ngaliwurru? Timber Creek area, western NT
Kurratjkurratj Batjamalh Cox Peninsula area, Top End NT
Guwak Yolngu-matha north-east Arnhem Land, NT
Kurrawkurrawka Mudbura & Kuwaarrangu north-central NT
lkwarrer-arrpwernenhe Kaytetye Barrow Creek, NT
Kurrakurraji Djingilu north-central NT
Kurrakurraja Warlmanpa central NT
Gurrawgurrawg Manggarayi north-central NT

From Western Australia there is Kura:kura from the Ord River area—and from the same general area also Kurrakurrul and GurraGurra.

From Cape York in north Queensland in the Wik-mungkan language comes Kura:djua.

The marked similarities become more apparent in the Northern Territory where, still over an enormous spread of country, there are remarkable similarities in names for Kurrakurraja  – note that in the orthographies of many of these languages the letters “K” and “G” are pronounced similarly. The notable exception is the Kaytetye language name lkwarrer-arrpwernenhe, which may be descriptive rather than onomatopoeic.

What we have here is remarkable similarity in naming systems for this bird in quite geographically and culturally distinct areas of the country. This is not totally surprising as elsewhere I’ve found widespread similarities in naming systems for birds between cultural and language groups from across Australia. Also, as is common with many indigenous languages naming is often based on onomatopoeic systems—and certainly the Kurrakurraja invites an onomatopoeic response.

You can hear the wondrous (well for me anyway) call of the Kurrakurraja below.

As you can see this is certainly a call that could be described as … well … having the certain quality of ‘perceptual salience’.

This map shows the recorded Australia distribution of the Kurrakurraja. The area that I want to concentrate on is south of Katherine area in the centre of the Northern Territory as indicated by these records. These records are at sites along a chain of waters that coincide with the line of the main north-south Stuart highway, that runs for 3,000 kilometres from Adelaide in south Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory.

I want to concentrate on the land around that of the Mudburra, Kuwaarrangu and Djingulu language groups.

This slide shows the Northern Territory—the land traditionally owned by the Mudburra, Kuwaarrangu and Djingulu language groups is in the Newcastle Waters/Murranji stockroute area.

In local telling, the Kurrakurraja is recorded as having travelled from a centre of activity near to Katherine (with known related but distinct activities recorded from both the north-central, west and east of the NT).

From this area Kurrakurraja travels south towards the Murranji/Marlinja areas near to Newcastle Waters. It is in this area that Kurrakurraja ceremonial activity occurs but for present purposes I must stay within the bounds of confidence because many of the details are highly secret-sacred and thus very sensitive.

As in much of my other research into bird knowledge of the Aboriginal language groups in the Northern Territory, I have found much material in documents produced in support of and evidence tendered to the Court proceedings for applications for the return of Aboriginal land pursuant to the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act (1978) of the Commonwealth. There is a very useful collection of all of the land claim commissioners’ Reports here.

In the case of the Murranji land claim, the following is from the Murranji Land Claim Report from 1986 by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Justice William Kearney. This map shows the tracks of the Kurrakurraja dreaming around the claim area and was reproduced at Appendix 8 of the Report.

In the case of the Murranji land claim, the following very brief reference appears in the report:

The cult of the Storm Bird, a major travelling Dreaming is said to be owned by the Wilyuku patrimoiety, so in a sense it is a major Dreaming for all of the groups, though specifically associated with the Jalapirri group.

That brevity is, as already noted, due to the intensely secret-sacred nature of the Kurrakurraja ceremony and knowledge.

More information about the Kurrakurraja in country to the south of that the subject of the Murranji land claim can be found in the 1997 Warlmanpa (Muckaty Pastoral Lease) land claim report, Commissioner Justice Gray noted :

4.8 Kurrakurraja country.

4.8.1 The major dreaming associated with the Kurrakurraja group is the dreaming which gives its name to the group. The dreaming is known as Storm Bird, thought to be a Channel-billed Cuckoo. It is a bird which migrates south at the start of the wet season and is thus associated with the coming of rain. The Kurrakurraja dreaming has a long track which passes through the western part of the claim area, in a generally north-south direction. Sites on the claim area associated with the dreaming are Mirirripinpa (site 15), at which there is a waterhole left by the dreaming, Jalyirringi (site 21), Nangkawala (site 29), and two unidentified plains, designated as Plain A (site 32) and Plain B (site 26), which lie between Nangkawala and Latapa (site 33). Each of the Kurrakurraja is also associated with the Walanypirri,  or Pelican, dreaming. Nangkawala and the two unidentified plains are also associated with the Wirntiku, or stone curlew, dreaming.

4.8.2 Just off the claim area on Helen Springs Station are laakula (site 23), Minin-imanjimanji (site 25) and Jangkarti (site 31). These three sites are also associated with both the Wirntiku and Walanypirri dreamings.

In conclusion—and one day I’ll get around to finalising this work—I note that:

 * Kurrakurraja is a bird of cultural significance to many language groups across Australia;

* Kurrakurraja naming systems exhibit unusual concurrence on a continental scale;

* Kurrakurraja cult represents an example of cultural-brokerage/linkages between different cultural and linguistic blocs;

* “ownership” of Kurrakurraja sites can often be extraterritorial/jurisdictional;

Finally, some words of caution

* be careful of possible confusion between the Pacific/Eastern Koel Eudynamys orientalis and the Kurrakurraja—there are some similarities in size, morphology, call, migratory range and habits

Further research

* Further on-the-ground research needed to resolve confusion, elicit more detail, record songs & stories;

* Investigation of knowledge in Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia and with Aboriginal groups in south-eastern Australia.

Finally, here is a Kurrakurraja from my front yard in Alice Springs a few years back.

 

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Photo – thanks to Laurie Ross for the great shot – you can see more of Laurie’s work here at Tracks Birding & Photography Tours 

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