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Victorians and Native Birdlife

An evolving relationship as illustrated through Victoria's cultural collections.

The people of Victoria have had a constantly changing relationship with their native birdlife. Ever-present and iconic, we’ve put Australian birds on official state heraldry and on tomato sauce bottles and biscuit packets. There has always been an immense fondness and respect for our unique birds. However, attitudes towards wildlife generally and birds specifically have undergone seismic paradigm shifts over the last few hundred years. Looking at objects catalogued here on Victorian Collections, we can map this change and trace the ways that Victorians have interacted with birds, from Indigenous spirituality to citizen science programs.

Book - Bunjil's Cave (1968)

Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages

For thousands of years, birds have been integral to indigenous Victorian culture. Many of the Victorian clans believe in a creator spirit that takes the form of a Wedge-tailed Eagle – Bunjil. Contrasting to the heroic Bunjil is Waa, the trickster, depicted as a raven. Bunjil is associated with six wirmums or shamans: Djurt-djurt the Nankeen Kestrel, Thara the quail hawk, Yukope the parakeet, Dantum the parrot, Tadjeri the brushtail possum and Turnong the glider. This strong connection to native birds is expressed in indigenous art, craft and culture throughout Australia.

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Photograph - Seeking Muttonbird eggs, Cape Woolamai

Phillip Island and District Historical Society Inc.

For much of human history, animals have been viewed as a resource to be exploited. During the Victorian-era, collecting a basketful of shearwater eggs was considered a wholesome day out for the family. The huge breeding colonies of seabirds on Phillip Island were treated as a bounty of eggs, meat, feathers and bones. The name given to Short-tailed Shearwaters during this era – Muttonbirds – is evocative of this attitude. Despite the actions of our forebears, Short-tailed Shearwaters are still abundant and many thousands of pairs nest at Cape Woolamai. Today, Phillip Island still generates significant value from its native birds through tourism and non-destructive appreciation.

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Egg collection

Warrnambool and District Historical Society Inc.

While people were collecting eggs in Cape Woolamai for food, others were doing so for science. Different species of birds lay distinctively patterned eggs. In addition to making lists of species and taking photographs, birders in the late 19th and early 20th century also collected and prepared eggs to supplement their observations. This egg collection was made by Charles Brittlebank (1862 – 1945), a Government Plant Pathologist for Victoria and a member of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria with an interest in mycology, ornithology and geology.

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Gould League Certificate

Orbost & District Historical Society

The Gould League of Bird Lovers was established in 1909. Its original mission statement was to end recreational egg collecting and promote bird conservation. The league was successful in this cause and became a pervasive force for behaviour change and environmental education in the early 20th century. As its remit broadened, the Gould League shortened its name and produced posters, books and even released vinyl LPs of bird call recordings.

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Book - Adam Lindsay Gordon, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes (1870)

Adam Lindsay Gordon Commemorative Committee

In Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poem, A Dedication, he evokes the desolation of Australia, describing the country as;

[L]ands where bright blossoms are scentless, And songless bright birds; Where, with fire and fierce drought on her tresses Insatiable Summer oppresses.

The notion of ‘songless bright birds’ became something of a catchphrase and fed into perceptions that Australia - its wildlife and its people - were backwards and inferior. Australians passionately refuted this suggestion, receiving it as an affront to the national character and pointing out that Magpies, Butcherbirds and Whistlers are all undeniably superior songsters to their European counterparts.

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Grey Currawong mounted skeleton

University of Melbourne, Tiegs Museum of Zoology

Ever since the first natural history museums were established, birds have been popular collection items. Mounted skeletons and cabinets full of taxidermy mounts are a mainstay of museum displays to this day. This Grey Currawong skeleton originated from the early collection of the Melbourne Museum. From 1856-1899 the collection was housed in a building at the University of Melbourne. In 1899 when the museum moved to its Russell Street site, a number of specimens were donated to the University’s teaching museum in the Biology Department. This specimen is still used today for the teaching of zoology subjects.

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Embroidered Fairywren jug cover

Blacksmith's Cottage and Forge

Although Australian artists sometimes depicted European or generic birds, native species have long featured in our arts and crafts. Well-loved birds such as Cockatoos, Kookaburras and Magpies provide an instantly identifiable, visual shorthand for Australianness. You can immediately tell from the profile and the thin, vertically-held tail that the bird on this jug cover is a Fairywren. Fairywrens are a familiar bird in Victoria and can be encountered in gardens and parks.

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Postcard - 'Greetings To My Soldier Boy'

Wangaratta RSL Sub Branch

During World War I, many Australian men served overseas and tonnes of postcards and letters were exchanged between them and their loved ones. Soldiers homesick for Australia were comforted by images such as this one, showing a male and female Lyrebird – a quintessentially Australian couple. In addition to the Lyrebirds, this card is positively overflowing with Australian iconography, incorporating a silhouette of a map, a pair of flags and a garland of wattle. Similar cards featured magpies, emus and kookaburras.

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Healesville Sanctuary souvenir milk jug

Healesville Sanctuary History Archives

The appreciation and marketing of Australia’s unique birdlife has become a multimillion dollar industry. Places like Healesville Sanctuary have become Victorian institutions due to their promotion of local bird and mammal species. The sanctuary’s popular bird of prey show is now held in a huge, purpose-built arena. When this jug was for sale, the main bird of prey attraction was Horatius the Wedge-tailed Eagle, a tame bird who greeted visitors as they crossed the sanctuary’s bridge over Badger Creek during the 1930s.

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Book - Birds of Mallacoota (1979)

Orbost & District Historical Society

Bird field guides are books that list all the bird species you might encounter in an area and provides information on how to identify them. There are many such books that cover all Australian species, but there are also regional guides that are restricted to species found in a particular area. Regional guides are very useful in focusing on species and sites of local importance. These books were often written by non-professional ornithologists with local knowledge and a passion for the environment.

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Tern Watch T-shirt

Conservation Volunteers

Tern Watch was an early citizen science program that took place from 1987-1992 in which volunteers ‘babysat’ Little Terns on Rigbys Island near Lakes Entrance. The terns had suffered a severe population decrease and volunteers helped them with their breeding attempts by monitoring the nests, educating beachgoers as to why they should avoid the site and keeping an eye out for predators. In the space of a century or so, Victorians have gone from casually plundering the nests of seabirds to personally protecting them from harm. It’s an attitude shift that makes me hopeful for the future of our native birds.

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