The savage colonial history of bird names

The Pink Cockatoo has had a few names over the years. The father of Australian ornithology, John Gould, knew it as Leadbeater’s cockatoo, following the scientific name given to it in 1831, Cacatua leadbeateri. This was after Benjamin Leadbeater, the London naturalist and taxidermist.

Sir Thomas Mitchell, the surveyor general of New South Wales from 1828 to 1855, called it the Red-top Cockatoo. He was awestruck by its beauty. “Few birds more enliven the monotonous hues of the Australian forest than this beautiful species whose pink-coloured wings and flowing crest might have embellished the air of a more voluptuous region,” he gushed.

It was for this lavish description that the Pink Cockatoo, now officially classified as endangered, was renamed Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo in 1977, after a survey of members of the Royal Australian Ornithologists Union (now BirdLife Australia) – a vote which the organisation’s public affairs manager, Sean Dooley, describes ruefully as “a bit of a Boaty McBoatface moment”.

It was certainly unfortunate to name such a beautiful bird after a mass killer. In 1836, at the euphemistically named Mount Dispersion, Mitchell encountered the Indigenous Kureinji and Barkindji people on the banks of the Murray River. His account of what happened there, unsparing in its brutality, stands in stark contrast to his rhapsodic description of the cockatoo:

“It was difficult to come at such enemies hovering in our rear with the lynx-eyed vigilance of savages … Attacked simultaneously by both parties, the whole betook themselves to the river, my men pursuing them and shooting as many as they could. Numbers were shot swimming across the Murray, and some ever after they had reached the opposite shore.”

It’s due mainly to this incident – Mitchell’s starring contribution to Australia’s frontier wars, for which he only ever received a mild rebuke – that BirdLife Australia has recently reverted to using the old name Pink Cockatoo in official correspondence. It’s part of a push by the organisation to examine the utility of eponymous names more generally.

In a recent paper for the ornithological journal Emu, the environmental scientist Stephen Garnett argued that bird names should be culturally and socially inclusive. Common names are a historic reflection of the power structures of society; naming places and their fauna after their colonial conquerors is the most naked expression of dominance and ownership.

If you’ll forgive the phrase, the reversion to Pink Cockatoo represents the tip of the spear in the wider revision of Australian bird names. “It’s the easy one, because it’s the most contentious,” Dooley says. There has been very little pushback. “A few people have harrumphed and said that this decolonising of names is political correctness gone mad. But that’s only one or two voices.”

He points out that Pink Cockatoo has been the predominant white Australian epithet given to the species anyway, starting with the RAOU’s first official checklist in 1926, and Australia’s first field guide, Neville Cayley’s What Bird Is That (1931). There are many First Nations names for the cockatoo, the best known being the Wiradjuri wijugla, whimsically anglicised as “wee juggler”.

The more practical problem with eponymous names (and others reflecting their colonial origins: Emperor and Royal Penguin, Princess Parrot and so on) is their lack of utility. They tell us nothing about the species. Even the multi-hued Gouldian Finch – an iconic species named not after John, but his wife, Elizabeth – is better described by the alternative, Rainbow Finch.

The question of utility could potentially call into question the use of colloquial names such as Galah and Willie Wagtail. But such names are an entrenched part of the Australian vernacular, used affectionately for some of our most familiar species. The fact that Willie Wagtails are in decline, like many of our most common birds, should give us all pause.

The reversion to Pink Cockatoo will become final with the release of BirdLife Australia’s next Working List of Australian Birds. That will take some time. “If you’ll excuse the pun, we’re trying to get all our ducks in a row,” Dooley says. In the digital age, it’s complicated, with various databases and apps needing to be updated.

At least common names, unlike scientific names, are subject to change. Spare a thought, if you will, for Anophthalmus hitleri, a Slovenian beetle pushed to the brink of extinction by collectors of Nazi memorabilia. More recently, a Panamanian amphibian, Dermophis donaldtrumpi, as well as a Californian moth, were named after the former US president.

According to New Scientist, these names were bestowed ironically, with the intention of drawing attention to Trump’s appalling environmental legacy. It notes that while these scientific names remain immutable, any ironic motivation is likely to be forgotten in the future.

The renaming of the Pink Cockatoo, on the other hand, is an act of remembrance and respect. And that is no minor matter.

First published in the Guardian, 16 September 2023

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