The myth of the alien cockatoos

A 1788 painting of a sulphur crested cockatoo by John Hunter

One of the arguments repeatedly trotted out by the proponents of sulphur crested cockatoo culls in the last year has been that it’s ok to kill these birds because they’re not native to the Sydney region. 

The argument goes that sulphur crested cockatoos were never found east of the great dividing range prior to European invasion, when changes in land use and possible deliberate introduction made them go from absent to thriving.

I’d long suspected this was simply an attempt to justify the shameful killing of these magnificent creatures and I’ve recently come across some historical evidence to back this up.  The evidence comes in the form of a painting of one of these birds along with a description of their local Aboriginal name, “garraway”, in the 1788 book “Birds and Flowers of NSW”, written by John Hunter, the man who would succeed Author Phillip as Governor of NSW and after whom the Hunter Valley and numerous other locations and landmarks were named.  

Further evidence of this traditional name was provided by Les Bursill, historian and archeologist of the Dharawal people, who inhabited the area that now forms southern Sydney and the Illlawarra.  The name (this time spelt “garrawi”) can be found on Les’ collection of local Aboriginal words at http://lesbursill.com/site/aboriginalwords.htm.  Les claims that the suburb of Kirrawee derived it’s name from the cockatoos, although some other sources claim the name comes from a local word for “lengthy”.

The evidence from local Aboriginal groups and early European settlers both point strongly to sulphur crested cockatoos having a long history of occupying the Sydney basin.  It’s my hope that this confirmation that they form part of our living heritage may help dissuade those who consider culls in the future and I’ll certainly be making sure that the true history of this species is understood by the relevant decision makers. 

This story is also a great lesson in why we should do our utmost to protect our history and the traditional knowledge of the first Australians – you never know when the past may come in useful in protecting the present.

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