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australian aboriginal ornithology

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Old Friday 6th February 2004, 20:45   #1
Bob Gosford
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australian aboriginal ornithology

I am an australian ornithologist with an interest in ethnoorithology, particularly australian aboriginal ornithology - about which little has been published. Little work has been or is being done and I am seeking any ideas or input from researchers elsewhere. The following message is part of apost I have today put on Birding-Aus.

Unfortunately even Gould's Handbook to the Birds of Australia has a limited amount of information (a sad day for australian ornithology when Gilbert died in 1845 in north queensland with that fool Leichhardt!). There is very little information and no dedicated book or publication available that I am aware of on australian aboriginal ornithology - maybe someone needs to write the book/s. There is certainly a need for a general introduction to the subject and plenty of opportunities for meaningful research - particulary within individual language groups.

There are a few, and very few recent, journal articles on australian ethnobiology generally and quite a few works on aboriginal botany. I intend to publish an expanded version of my paper delivered to the AOC at Canbera in December 2003. I am also working on an ornithological history of Arnhem Land in the NT as stage one of a three stage project on australian aboriginal ornithology. Thge second stage will examine and seek to define aboriginal ornithology generally (in the context of the considerable work done elsewhere) and outline some parameters for field research - particularly the ethical/philosophical considerations. What is needed is for aboriginal ornithology to be set in context - who has the information, what is it and how might it be used - this last point is particularly relevant to the increasing responsibility that aboriginal people are taking for the management of their own lands. The third stage of my project would be to undertake extensive field work with people from a particular language group. This would most likely be done in the Northern Territory, where there are still substantial numbers of people living on country and where much of the knowledge has not been washed away by the "tides of history".

I also plan to publish a bibliography of australian aboriginal ornithological research at some time in the future.

There are a few other that I am aware of that are currently working in or with an interest in this area. I am aware of a Peter Lister having done a small amount of work, lawrie Conole (hi Laurie) has expressed an interest and Sonia Tideman (well-known for her pioneering work on Gouldian finches) is currently working on aspects of Aboriginal story-telling and birds. She also presented a most interesting paper at the AOC on recurring themes in stories acoss australia and plans to do more work in this area. Try a web search on the various words/phrases. More work needs to be done prior to AOC 2005 (in NZ) so that a session dedicated to australasian ethnoornithology can be presented at that conference.

Chris, I note your reference to your Aboriginal family. I would encourage you to start your own project - particularly if you have a member or members of your family that has a particular interest in birds and may have some traditional knowledge passed down from past generations. Standard oral history recording techniques can be used.

I would welcome any thoughts, criticisms, research tips or information that anyone may have in this area. I already have a substantial amount of information from a variety of disparate sources and would appreciate any research assistance. There is much work to be done in this area - partly because so little work has been or is being done, but also to set out the framework in which future work can be done. Some of my thoughts/questions include:

- a philosophical framework needs to be established - what does/or should an australian aboriginal ornithology look like and what use might it be?;
- what data/information is currently available and what gaps need to be filled? (one particularly useful area is the anthropological material gathered in support of aboriginal land and native title claims in recent years);
- who can or should do this work, what ethical/practical considerations might apply and what role can 'peak' bodies like Birds Australia perform?;
- how can this information be put to use and how can mainstream australian ornithology contribute to the challenges facing Aboriginal people in the management of the vast tracts of land (particularly in northern australia) for which they have responsbility?

I could go on. I hope that this stimulates discussion among the birding-aus community.

I welcome your thoughts - got to go now - the mixed feeding flock in the pittosporum outside my window demands my attention!!

Thanks and look forward to your responses.

Robert Gosford
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Old Thursday 12th February 2004, 21:57   #2
Katy Penland
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Dear Bob,

You're probably already aware of this, but Denise Goodfellow out of Darwin has done some extraordinary birding and cultural work. Her website and contact info are at From your post, it sounds like she and her vast experience (scientific, artistic, political and cultural) would be a great asset to your research. Best of luck with your project!

Katy Penland
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Old Thursday 12th February 2004, 23:16   #3
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Interesting site Katy!
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Old Friday 13th February 2004, 01:17   #4
Katy Penland
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Originally Posted by steve_nova
Interesting site Katy!
Isn't it? Although I didn't know about her before my last trip down under, I've corresponded with her several times on various topics, and she's just fascinating. I won't miss hiring her as a guide next time I'm in Australia, I can guarantee you! :-)
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Old Friday 5th March 2004, 22:07   #5
Andrew Whitehouse
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Hi Robert,

I'm not aware of any ethnoornithology in australia either, but would be interested to hear of any. There's a big conference in England in the summer on Ethnobiology and, even though I expect you might not be able to make it there, it could be worth checking the site to see if there is anyone giving papers on anything relevant whom you could get in touch with:

I would imagine that some anthropology departments in Australia must have staff with an interest in Australian ethnobiology so it would be worth checking their websites, if you've not done so already.

My only (rather basic) academic tip on this sort of work is that I think it's important not to see it as a sort of 'salvage' job where you're collecting knowledge that's considered to be about to 'die out'. I think it might be more interesting and worthwhile to see how 'traditional knowledge' is being adapted or given new meanings, rather than seeing it as something unchanging.

Good luck and let us know how you get on.

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