AUSTRALIA'S BIRDS ARE EMBEDDED WITHIN ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIAN CULTURE
Updated: Jun 24
Birds have been on the Australian continent for eons. Australia is even recognised as the origin of the songbirds that now tenderly wake us up all over the world. For the last 60,000 years, these birds have lived along side Aboriginal and Torres Strait people, developing a profound and mutualistic relationship. Birds have featured heavily in the song lines of Indigenous nations across Australia and have important roles for hunting and ceremony. With hundreds of nations across Australia, each with their own unique songlines and links to birds, it would be a difficult task to collate them all. Here, I touch on just a few of the deep-rooted connections that Indigenous Australians have established with Australia’s birds and highlight some of the lessons we can learn from traditional knowledge.
Crowned as Australia’s largest bird of prey, the Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax) is undeniably majestic. It’s no surprise then that the bird has a strong spiritual connection with Aboriginal Australians across the continent. According to the creation stories of the Kulin nation of south-central Victoria, Bunjil is the creator and remains as a protector of the natural world. The Kulin people believe that Bunjil took shelter in a cave (Bunjil’s shelter) located in part of Gariwerd/The Grampians which is recognised as one of the most important Aboriginal rock art sites. After creating the mountains, rivers, flora, fauna, and laws for people to live by, Bunjil transformed into an eagle, flying high into the sky to remain as a protector, watching over his people.
Another creation story states that after Bunjil completed his creation works, he asked Crow, the keeper of the winds, to open his bags of wind. Upon doing so, the winds were so strong they created a cyclone, but Bunjil requested an even stronger wind. When crow complied, the wind caused Bunjil and his people to be blown up to the sky, where he became the star Altair with the black swans, his two wives, becoming stars beside him. The Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains also have an eagle constellation known as Wilto, which is the foot of an eagle represented by the Southern Cross.
Crows and Ravens
The ravens and crows of Australia are often (although admittedly not always) admired for their cunning and intelligence. While being recognised as a trickster in several Indigenous dreaming stories, the crow is also considered a hero and ancestral being in many Aboriginal cultures across Australia. For the Noongar people of Western Australia, the wardong/Australian Raven holds great spiritual meaning with almost half of the people adopting them as their animal totem. Totems, or kobongs, are plants or animals that people inherit or choose to protect and control their environment. The Noongar people also believe that the wardong helps carry the spirits of the dead across the sea beyond Rottnest and Garden Islands, to the afterlife at Kurannup.
The wardong plays an important role in identifying seasonal change in the Noongar calendar, which is made up of six seasons interposed by shifts in the natural world. When the crows start to pair up in preparation for mating and they become quiet, this indicates the start of Makuru, the coldest and wettest season in the calendar. The crafty birds also feature in many Noongar dreaming stories, including how they developed their iconic black sheen after accidently lighting a large bushfire. The crow, the seagull and the magpie, who at the time were all completely white, raced for shelter in a cave. The gull made it first, entering the cave completely unsinged and remaining white. The magpie followed shortly after, finding safety with just a few burnt patches. However, the crow was the last to reach the shelter, leaving it burnt completely black all over its body.
With its long-limbed gait and indisputable charisma, the Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) would challenge the kookaburra and magpie for the title of Australia’s most iconic bird. Understandably, the emu features heavily in Indigenous ceremonies across Australia. During these ceremonies, women often wear skirts made from the feathers of emus and other birds. They also play ceremonial drums, a lesser known instrument than the didgeridoo or clap sticks, which were typically made from emu skins. Nations from across Australia, including the North East nation in Tasmania, would perform emu dances at ceremonies. In this dance they would place one hand behind them, and interchangeably put the other to the ground and above their heads as they danced around the fire – replicating the motion of the head of an emu when feeding. This dance, which is now being taught to young Indigenous Tasmanians, demonstrates the strong connection that Tasmanian Aboriginals had with the now extinct Tasmanian subspecies of emu.
Another important link for many Aboriginal peoples is the Emu in the Sky, a constellation that consists of dark clouds instead of stars. Not only visually stunning, the constellation also provides important seasonal cues for the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi people of southwest NSW. In April and May, shortly after becoming visible, the constellation depicts a running emu, representing the female emus chasing the males during mating season. In June and July, the Emu in the Sky then appears to be sitting as the legs disappear, representing the male emu incubating the eggs and indicating that the eggs are ready to be collected. Later in November, the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi people know when the waterholes have filled as the constellation transforms to display just the body of the Emu, illustrative of the bird sitting in a waterhole.
The Emu (L) in autumn (April-May), running after a mate; and (R) in winter (June-July), sitting on the nest (Image: Starry Night Education).
This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the firehawks of Australia. A group of birds that include the black kite (Milvus migrans), whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and the brown falcon (Falco berigora), the firehawks were recently given celebrity status for their incredible use of tools. The theory suggests that the raptors fly into fires and pick up firesticks with their talons or beak before moving it to a different location, releasing the stick and starting another fire. Bob Gosford, co-author on a paper that documented the phenomenon, suggest that the “intent of the raptors is to spread fire to unburned locations... to flush out prey via flames or smoke”. Yet, some are sceptical of this hypothesis and suggest that the hawks have simply picked up the stick by accident, mistaking it for prey.
While the spectacle has only recently been published in Western media, the behaviour has long been observed by Indigenous peoples of Australia, particularly those of the north including the Alawa, MalakMalak and Jawoyn peoples. Stories of fire-stick farming by raptors has been passed down through generations and the practice has been depicted in ceremonial performances and art. Fire-stick farming, or cultural burning, is a traditional hunting strategy practiced by many Indigenous peoples of Australia, which flushes out animals and therefore facilitates hunting. Alawa man Waipuldanya (Philip Roberts) said in his ghost-written autobiography, I, The Aboriginal that “it is possible that our forefathers learnt this trick from the birds”. Aboriginal rangers will also include firehawks in risk management when dealing with bushfires, as their firestick carrying behaviour can lead to controlled burns jumping across firebreaks.
Many non-Aboriginal Australians overlook the deep understanding of the Australian environment that is held by the traditional owners of this land.
Most non-Aboriginal scientists and land managers, for example, are often too loyal to the conventions of Western science, discouraged by the paradoxes between scientific and traditional knowledge. However, the examples in this article demonstrate just some of the ways that traditional knowledge could inform and complement conservation management. In general, both lines of knowledge have a deep respect for the Australian environment and strive to protect the local fauna and flora. Even if scientific and traditional knowledge do not always share a common perception of reality, why can’t the two philosophies work together if they both seek a similar outcome? Through collaboration and receptive discussion between the two lines of belief, could we not improve the likelihood of saving our iconic Australian species?
All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members