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DISPLAYING POSTS BY: Craig Robertson (6)

Long-tailed Cuckoos

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by Craig Robertson
Publish date
31 October 2011
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Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

October is an important time of year for bird migration. In the southern hemisphere birds head for their summer breeding grounds. Most species of cuckoo are migratory and the Long-tailed Cuckoo (Eudynamys taitensis) is the greatest traveller of the southern hemisphere cuckoos. It is added to the Australian list owing to its seasonal presence on Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. Museum Victoria has several specimens of this species, mostly from New Zealand.

Long-tailed Cuckoo skins in their drawer. Long-tailed Cuckoo skins in their drawer.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Some of the specimens are over a hundred years old. Not unusually one of the skins is from John Gould, acquired around 1860, another from James Cockerell, a pioneering nineteenth century collector who gained his specimen in the Solomon Islands in 1879; others are of more recent origin. They almost radiate with a sense of history, and perhaps some mystery too.

Long-tailed Cuckoos spend the winter months in the more tropical islands of the Pacific Ocean, mainly in Polynesia. Their spring migration takes them to New Zealand and its surrounding islands. From French Polynesia, the islands around Tahiti, the distance is over 3000 kilometres, a route over open ocean. It is in this group that it is thought the New Zealand Maoris had their ancestral home, the paradisiacal land of Hawaiki.

Some students of Polynesian voyaging have theorised that the original discovery of New Zealand was made by following cuckoo migration. But it is a controversial idea. Maori mythology is replete with stories of ancestral voyaging. The mythology also acknowledges the existence and character of the Long-tailed Cuckoo, 'a lazy parent'. But there does not appear to be any definitive link between them and the voyaging.

Nevertheless, it is a persuasive idea. Long-tailed cuckoos are land birds. Individual Pacific Islands hold relatively few bird species, especially land birds. However unpopulated New Zealand was heavily forested, with a bountiful range of host species which cuckoos could parasitise; the result – lots of cuckoos. Their presence and movements in the islands would have been prominent. Also they migrate over a period of two or three weeks, usually in October. They fly day and night, low over the ocean, calling loudly to each other as they go in a way that can be heard on the water in the dark.

A remarkable Australian, Harold Gatty, was probably the most prominent proponent of the bird migration theory. As a young man he had gained a thorough knowledge of navigation. He emigrated to the United States and rose to fame in 1931 as the navigator on a historic flight around the world in eight days. Along with the pilot, he was given a ticker tape parade in New York and a medal by President Herbert Hoover. Later he served with Macarthur's headquarters in the South Pacific.

In 1943 Gatty published The Raft Book, a survival guide for airmen at sea. It was standard issue in the life rafts aboard all Allied aircraft in the Pacific. The book includes Gatty's ideas about how to navigate using the techniques of 'the greatest pathfinders in history', the Polynesians. As Gatty says, they understood bird migration long before Europeans, understood there was land where the birds were seen to go to, and then return from. They were an adventurous people and brave sailors in canoes that they said 'dared the clouds of heaven'.

Just imagine you are far out from any known land at night, the infinite starry sky above and a seemingly infinite world of water around you, your next landfall an unknown distance away -and nothing but a bunch of cuckoos to guide you on your way. Brave sailors indeed.

Two Long-tailed Cuckoo specimens Two Long-tailed Cuckoo specimens mounted for exhibition.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Whatever the truth about Maori migration, it is certain that the adult birds in the Museum Victoria collection would have made great voyages across the South Pacific. There is a Long-tailed Cuckoo in the Amazing Animals of Australasia, Oceania and Antarctica in Wild: Amazing animals in a changing world.

Further reading:

Harold Gatty, Nature is Your Guide: how to find your way on land and sea, Collins, London, 1958

David Lewis, We, the Navigators: the ancient art of landfinding in the Pacific, ANU Press, Canberra, 1972

For the sceptical view:

Andrew Sharp Ancient Voyagers in Polynesia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963

Sturt’s Pigeon

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
12 September 2011
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Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

13 September this year marks the 150th anniversary of the day that Alfred Howitt and his party reached the dig tree at Fort Wills, where the missing explorers Burke and Wills and their party had made their base for the trek to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Two days later a member of Howitt’s party, Edwin Welch, found John King alive and being cared for by the local Aboriginal people. The remains of both Burke and Wills, who had died around the end of June, were found and buried a few days later.

As noted in a previous post, Museum Victoria holds a small but interesting group of specimens that Howitt collected on two expeditions to Cooper Creek.

Bird specimens Howitt dispatched to Melbourn The bird specimens Howitt dispatched to Melbourne are shown here in taxonomic order.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Howitt's specimens include two specimens of the Spinifex Pigeon, Geophaps plumifera. The species had been described as the Plumed Pigeon by John Gould as early as 1842, from a specimen collected by Benjamin Bynoe, the ship’s surgeon on the Beagle, a man who had treated Darwin for illness on its historic voyage. However it was known to the explorers of the 1860s as ‘Sturt’s Pigeon’.

two specimens of the Spinifex Pigeon Howitt's two specimens of the Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Some years later, Howitt wrote that when he reached the dig tree he found 'the loose sandy soil was so run over by the tracks of birds and small animals that no traces of footprints could be seen'. He and Welch both noted in their journals the presence of ‘crested pigeons’ in the area. Howitt says they were 'numerous', Welch that they were in 'immense numbers'. The Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophotes was certainly present; there are two in the upper right corner of the collection pictured. But Howitt specifically states that it was the 'small crested pigeon, spoken of by Sturt' to which he referred.

Welch also remarked that the pigeons were a first-rate change of diet, roasted on coals. Sturt’s party had also enjoyed them, unlike the O. lophotes which he found 'neither tender nor well-flavoured'. Why Burke and Wills were unable to exploit this source of food as Howitt’s party had done remains a mystery. Their deaths were the result of starvation. Is it possible the pigeons had only arrived in the area of Fort Wills in such numbers in the intervening eleven weeks since the deaths?

Sturt first encountered the bird in 1845 during his search for an inland sea. It was on his third and final exploration from Fort Grey, his last base camp near what is now the meeting of New South Wales, South Australian and Queensland borders. At the eastern end of Cooper Creek (which he named) he realised, with advice from local Aborigines, that no substantial body of water was to be found and began what was to prove his penultimate retreat. On the way back down the creek, 4 November 1845, he recorded in his daily journal: 'Mr Stuart shot a new and beautiful crested pigeon'. (John McDouall Stuart would himself achieve great fame as an explorer.) Four days later another was shot and he recorded a description of its behaviour. There is a colour plate illustration of it in the Narrative of this journey that he published in 1849, written up from his journal.

Colourplate of Sturt's Pigeon Colourplate of Sturt's Pigeon from MV's copy the original 1849 edition of Sturt's Narrative.
Image: pigeon-colourplate.jpg
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The appendix to this two-volume work includes a description of the birds encountered on the expedition. He states the pigeon was 'entirely confined to about thirty miles along the banks of that creek'.

The species is now known to be mainly sedentary. It is highly unlikely they would have suddenly arrived in this area during the winter months; most likely they were present all along. Sturt was the first to note their quail-like flight; strictly ground-feeders, they would flush suddenly, fly a short distance, then go to cover and be difficult to flush again, preferring to run off through the scrub. Sturt also repeatedly noted the shyness of birds in his explorations throughout the region; it was difficult to get a shot at them. He described his pigeon as 'very wild'. These pigeons may well have eluded the exhausted Burke, Wills and King, along with other potential food sources such as the cockatoos and parrots that would also have almost certainly been in the area; they only seemed able to shoot a few crows that no doubt came nosing around too close to their camps.

Howitt’s collection at Cooper Creek extends the range of the pigeon somewhat further south than it is usually found today. Their main range extends further north into the driest stony deserts where there is often no vegetation at all. They like rocky outcrops and are typically seen perched on a rock in the blazing sun in forty degree heat. It was in such a region that Sturt was forced to abandon his search for the inland sea and wrote in his weekly letter to his wife: 'The scene was awfully fearful, dear Charlotte. A kind of dread...came over me as I gazed upon it. It looked like the enrance into Hell'. His pigeons were perfectly at home around the ‘entrance into hell’. Paradoxically, in spite of their fondness for blazing deserts, they are never far from water. But unlike Sturt, a muddy little puddle is enough for them.

pigeon specimen Sturt's Pigeon mounted specimen.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Strehlow’s egg

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
26 August 2011
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Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

Amongst the greatest treasures of the museum are its bird egg collections; their delicate beauty is outstanding. A number of the collections were made privately before the practice was ended by government in the 1950s, one the best of them by Norman J. Favaloro. He was a solicitor in Mildura and a leading field ornithologist. He published many papers on his work and was appointed an Honorary Associate in the Ornithology Department in the then National Museum of Victoria. His position enabled him to continue collecting, and towards the end of his life he presented his collection to the museum, complete with detailed documentation. It is one of the largest collections with 1500 clutches nestled in boxes neatly aligned within finely crafted glass-topped drawers in a cedar cabinet, one of the most beautiful in the bird room.

Favaloro's cabinet Favaloro's cabinet.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Amongst the thousands of specimens I find one particular treasure that draws my eye. Set marks were used by collectors to identify clutches. On this one is pencilled: "C.A. Red-tail Cockatoo, 17.5.1919, C.S." The Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Calyptorhynchus banksii (once known as Banks' Cockatoo for Joseph Banks) is one of the most magnificent of the cockatoo family. It is under threat in parts of Australia, especially Victoria, but central Australia is one of its strongholds, where it is associated with rain in Indigenous culture.

  Calyptorhynchus banksii macrorhynchus Mounted specimen of Calyptorhynchus banksii macrorhynchus, one of five sub-species of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Like most collectors Favaloro swapped items with others to build his collection. In this case he has acquired an egg originally collected by one "C.S.". The data slip states: "Chas. Strehlow. Egg rested on wood dust in a hollow spout of a Red Gum at height of 20 feet up. Bird seen leaving nest." In 1919 Strehlow, a tall, strong man was 47 years old. But without doubt the egg would have been collected by an Aboriginal companion.

Strehlow's egg Strehlow's egg.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

'Charles' was the Reverend Carl Strehlow, a German missionary who ran the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg from 1894 until his death in 1922. He was also an ethnologist, and has been a rather forgotten figure in the broader discipline of anthropology in Australia. Strehlow's mission was among the central Australian tribes, in particular the Arrernte (or 'Aranda' to use his own spelling). They were the same people studied by Walter Baldwin Spencer, a long serving (1899 to 1928) and perhaps the most famous of Museum Victoria's former directors, and his colleague Frank Gillen.

Strehlow published the results of his ethnological fieldwork in German only, in a series of tomes from 1907 to 1920. They were a major resource for such luminaries of the time as Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud and Bronislaw Malinowski. But continental schools of thought were rejected by British-oriented social anthropologists who saw themselves as supporters of Darwinian science.

In the early years of the 20th century there was much controversy over the nature and origin of  religion among tribal peoples. Strehlow became embroiled in it. His reputation suffered from a clash with Spencer. Then World War I came. He was shocked by the outbreak of anti-German sentiment. Alhough a naturalized citizen, he found himself obliged to register as an enemy alien. By the time he collected the egg near the mission in 1919, he was hardly even a footnote in the literature of Australian anthropology.

Spencer continued on his illustrious and productive career until his death at Tierra Del Fuego in 1929. Strehlow's fate was not just obscurity, but a painful end. Just three years after collecting the egg, in October 1922 the strains of his work and life in general brought on an attack of the condition then known as dropsy, a massive swelling of the body due to accumulation of fluid. Strehlow needed hospitalisation urgently. His body was so bloated he could only travel strapped in a chair perched in the back of the old horse-drawn mission cart.

He left the mission for the last time with an Arrernte choir singing a hymn derived from J. S. Bach. As he was taken down the dry bed of the Finke River every bump on the track caused pain in his body, every thought the torments of Job. His family and their Arrernte friends were trying to get him to Oodnadatta and the train down to Adelaide. But when they reached Horseshoe Bend he died. The episode is recounted by his son Ted Strehlow in a great memoir, Journey to Horseshoe Bend. The story has what may be thought of as an operatic tragedy about it, and indeed a cantata of the same name was written by the Australian composer Andrew Schultz with the librettist Gordon Kalton Williams, and performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2003.

It is a rich and fascinating part of Australia's history, all there in one little egg in that beautiful Favaloro cabinet.

Links:

Spencer and Gillen Project

Ornithology Collection

On rats

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
26 June 2011
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Comments (1)

Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the day Alfred Howitt left Melbourne to search for Burke and Wills. By the time the explorers had returned to the Dig Tree in April 1861 there had been no news of them for six months. Public pressure had mounted and the exploration committee responsible sent out Howitt as leader of the Victorian Contingent Party. They would in fact discover the fate of Burke’s party in September that year.

Subsequently Howitt gathered a small but interesting collection of natural history specimens that were delivered to Museum Victoria. Only two mammal species were included: one of two known species of stick-nest rat Leporillus sp. [pictured in a cheeky pose here as a mount by an unknown nineteenth century preparator], and the White-footed Rabbit Rat Conilurus albipes. The Lesser Stick-nest Rat and the White-footed Rabit Rat were once widespread across parts of Australia but have long since been regarded as extinct.

stick-nest rat Leporillus sp Stick-nest rat Leporillus sp. collected by Alfred Howitt.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria
 

But there is some good news about rats! The species that the Burke and Wills Expedition knew best was the Long-haired or Plague Rat Rattus villosissimus. The ‘plague’ epithet came not from its carrying any disease, but its tendency to population irruptions reaching plague proportions, as we are currently witnessing with the introduced House Mouse Mus musculus. Burke and Wills travelled through the Channel Country after good rains, similar to the current environment. The rats swarmed over their first camp at Cooper Creek, attacking explorers and their supplies so relentlessly that they were forced to move to the site that subsequently became known for the Dig Tree.

The Long-haired Rat had hardly been sighted since the 1970s, especially during the long drought, and was feared to be heading for extinction. Now there are recent reports that the House Mouse is not the only rodent on the move. Zoologists are delighted that Long-haired Rats are now beeing seen in numbers again in Central Australia, including Alice Springs township. At least one of our native rodents is still out there.

Links:

Australian Dictionary of Biography: Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908)

Naughty Cocky

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
7 June 2011
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Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years. He wrote this piece for the Volunteer Newsletter in 2004.

Long-billed Corellas only ever seem to make the news when they are causing trouble. I guess this item won’t help their reputation.

I’m part of a project going through the Melbourne Museum’s vast collection of bird skins, checking their registration, or lack of it, in the EMu database. Historical specimens from legendary sources such as John Gould, William Blandowski, Baldwin Spencer and Donald Thomson are commonplace here, along with those collected by Museum staff and many collaborators in the birding community.

We all know how important the Museum is to safekeeping our heritage. We usually think of this happening in a rather abstract, institutional way, with these grand collections. But it can be quite personal.

Amongst the hundreds of items checked so far, it was a surprise to come across one specimen with a personal letter of introduction carefully placed beneath the reposing bird. “Cocky” was a Long-billed Corella (Cacatua tenuirostris) donated in 1980 by a family in Croydon. The letter is countersigned by Alan McEvey, a former Curator of Ornithology and a legendary bird man in his own lifetime. It gives us a brief biography of Cocky who had lived to the age of 80 or 90.

Cocky the Long-billed Corella
Cocky the Long-billed Corella with his letter of introduction.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In his early life Cocky lived for many years in a hotel in Bridge Road Richmond. Eventually he was ordered from the front bar by the police for bad language. Apparently it shocked the ladies passing by. Was Richmond really more genteel in the early years of the twentieth century than now? Hard to believe.

After this indignity Cocky lived in the back shed of the hotel, where he picked up the talk from the two-up games, the sly grog and illegal betting. “C’mon Bill, put a bob on a horse,” he would urge, along with numerous other colourful sayings. All this could still be heard out in the street and the passing ladies were still getting upset. A woman who worked at the hotel as a maid eventually offered Cocky to take home for her 10-year old son. She was the widowed grandmother of the donor and Cocky was handed down in the family for the next 50 years.

Her son removed Cocky, hitherto immobile, from his small cage and exercised his wings and rubbed his feet with olive oil until he could walk. He would sleep on the boy’s bedhead. But he started tearing the skirting boards apart calling; “Rats, rats, scald the buggers!” so he was put in an aviary. When he swore a cup of water was thrown over him. He stopped swearing but still talked until the end.

The letter concludes: “I have looked after him for 20 years please take care of our friend”.

Links:

Ornithology Collection

Burke & Wills sesquicentenary

Author
by Craig Robertson
Publish date
21 April 2011
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Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

150 years ago today, Burke and Wills returned from their trek to the Gulf of Carpentaria to Cooper Creek in south-west Queensland. Tragically, the party that had waited for them for 18 weeks had left just hours earlier on the same day, leaving a small cache of food buried under the a coolibah tree carved with the message 'DIG 3FT NW APR 21 1861'.

The Burke and Wills Dig Tree The Burke and Wills Dig Tree at Bullah Bullah Waterhole, on Coopers Creek, Queensland, Australia.
Image: Peterdownunder
Source: Used under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 from Peterdownunder
 

By the end of June both Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills were dead, leaving John King the only survivor. He was rescued by Alfred Howitt the following September during a search expedition, which also located the bodies of Burke and Wills.

Museum Victoria holds a number of important items associated with the story of Burke and Wills, particularly from Howitt’s two expeditions to Cooper Creek. Watch this space for more information in the coming months.

Medal - Burke & Wills Medal - Burke & Wills, Victoria, Australia, 1864. (NU 20096)
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The famous, ill-fated Victorian Exploring Expedition was an enterprise of the Royal Society of Victoria, which is still located just across Carlton Gardens from Melbourne Museum. The expedition remained a dominant story in the Colony (and later State) of Victoria at least until World War I and the advent of the ANZACs. Pictured is a medallion from the Numismatics Collection, minted by Thomas Stokes about 1864 to commemorate Burke and Wills.

Links:

Royal Society of Victoria: Burke & Wills Commemoration program

Dig - The Burke & Wills Research Gateway at the State Library of Victoria

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