Earlier today some wag posted a picture on the socials of an Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus that had somehow found its way to the small centralian community of Ltyentye Apurte (also known as Santa Teresa), south-east of Alice Springs.
Now, most people would associate pelicans with the country that they see them at and, because most Australians live along the south-eastern seaboard, the common assumption is that Pelicans are denizens of coastal, salt-water habitats.
That was also the apparent assumption of those who spotted the bird in very dry country not all that far away from the geographic centre of the country and of a local ABC journo with not much in the way of local bird knowledge. Anyway, the tale got a run on this evening’s PM program, which is a good thing in itself.
Santa Teresa – and Alice Springs – are both close the south-western fringe of the Pelican’s range in Centralia but from my own experience Pelicans aren’t necessarily uncommon throughout the inland. Pelicans are marvellous long-distance travellers and for mine there are few things more thrilling than spotting long lines of pelicans gliding at great height over the desert heading who knows where.
Renowned biologist Julian Reid described the contrary nature of the movement of pelicans in an exquisite essay in Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, published by CSIRO Books in 2009.
One cannot imagine a more arid, harsh and unproductive ecosystem than the salt crust surface of Lake Eyre South in most years, yet in the first six months of 1990 following its flooding from local rains a year earlier, 100,000 pelicans successfully fledged as many as 90,000 chicks.
The same species forms small breeding colonies of tens to hundreds, rarely a few thousand, on an annual basis on many small islands in coastal and sub-coastal Australia. This is not the hallmark of a boom-bust species. It displays characteristics of both boom-bust and ‘regular-annual’ reproductive strategies. Behavioural flexibility and adaptability to new environments and resources (reservoirs, other unnatural impoundments, artificial islands, human garbage, exotic fish as prey) would seem to be defining features of the Australian pelican.
Biologists aren’t the only ones that have documented the pelican’s occasional passage through inland Australia. A quick look through some Aboriginal language dictionaries in my home library reveals some interesting insights and records across Centralia.
For the Warlpiri language speakers of the Tanami Desert north-west of Alice Springs the Australian Pelican is called walanypirri. The same name is used by the Warumungu to the east of Warlpiri country and the Mudburra & Djingulu language groups far to the north-east.
For the Pintupi/Luritja people far to the west of Alice Springs the Pelican is known by the adopted creolised term pilikin.
The Anmatyerr language group north of Alice Springs has adopted a morphological approach, using the noun arrakert, meaning mouth or beak and adding the suffix angerr to form the term arrakert angerr, literally “big mouth”.
Further north in Kaytetye country the Pelican is known as walaymperre, as in Walaymperre thangkerne alkenhe arntwe arenye, repe ware elpalhapenye kape arltere. Thangkerne nyartelepe aynenke aylperre kape pwele-pwele. The pelican is a big waterbird which is grey and white. This bird eats fish and tadpoles. That excerpt comes from the Kaytetye to English Dictionary, IAD Press, 2012, compiled by Myfany Turpin and Alison Ross.
I’ve not been able to find an Eastern and Central Arrernte language (the main language spoken at Ltyentye Apurte) name for this magnificent creature – it isn’t in my 1994 edition of the dictionary – but have reached out to a few colleagues and will keep you posted.
Oh, and one reason why the Pelican might be uncommon around Ltyentye Apurte is that there is little standing water – even in wet season flood times – that would be attractive as a feeding and/or breeding ground.
Ltyentye Apurte is one of the friendliest towns I know in Centralia and if you want to learn a bit more about what folks there get up to there (my take on the annual horse races at this post from 2016 will give you a few clues) you should take a squiz at the Facebook page for the Atyenhenge Atherre Aboriginal Corporation to see how folks out that way are getting on with their lives.