A Rosella by Any Other Name: talking Australian Bird Names with Ian Fraser

October 21st, 2019

This National Bird Week learn more about Australia’s birds and the changing ways we describe them with Australian Bird Names co-author Ian Fraser.
Black and white drawing of a Powerful Owl looking sideways at the viewer

A Powerful Owl. Image: Silvester Diggles (1877) Companion to Gould’s Handbook; or, Synopsis of the Birds of Australia. Thorne and Greenwell, Brisbane.


Man in an Akubra hat with a small yellow and black bird clinging to his beard

Ian Fraser with a Golden-backed Honeyeater. Photo: author supplied.

This week we are celebrating National Bird Week (21-27 October), a week coordinated by BirdLife Australia to inspire Australians to take action and get involved in bird conservation efforts.

Whether you’re modifying your garden to include more bird-friendly plants or pulling out your binoculars to take part in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count (external link), there are plenty of ways to find out more about and support the native birds in your area!

To learn more about Australia’s amazing native birds, we had a chat with naturalist Ian Fraser, who, along with Jeannie Gray, authored Australian Bird Names: Origins and Meanings (Second Edition).



What do you find so fascinating about the origins and meanings of bird names?

Bear in mind that I’m only talking about vernacular names, which is ‘my bit’ of the book – my co-author Jeannie Gray dealt with the tricky stuff, translating the scientific names. For me this project combined two of my passions, birds and words. I’m interested in both the histories of Australian biology and the responses of ‘new’ Australians to the land and its wildlife. The names people chose for the animals they found here, birds in this case, tell us quite a bit about themselves and ultimately ourselves.

Many of the stories are actually pretty mundane, especially where unfamiliar birds were given names by professional ornithologists who weren’t at all familiar with the living birds. (‘Brown’ features strongly as a descriptor!) Some of the original names were so silly that they never stuck – Gould’s direct translations of his scientific names threw up horrors like Little Chthonicola, Black-throated Psophodes and Ground Grauculus – but they’re amusing to contemplate now. But it’s most interesting to find names which obviously arose spontaneously, coined by non-scientific people familiar with the species, suddenly appearing in print in old newspapers, and sometimes evolving from there. The names can never be more interesting than the birds, but they tell stories, often unexpected, often fascinating.


Black and white drawing of a Large-tailed Nightjar

The Large-tailed Nightjar, once known as the Large-tailed Goatsucker. Image: Silvester Diggles (1877) Companion to Gould’s Handbook; or, Synopsis of the Birds of Australia. Thorne and Greenwell, Brisbane.


What was your intent in writing this book?

Well, I think it’s fair to say we didn’t lack ambition! We have tried to record every vernacular name known to have been used in English, which leads to quite long lists in some cases. We have also tried to cast light on the origins and meanings of all these names. For scientific names we did not try to list every name ever used – that would have been too daunting a task – but used the current name recommended by the International Ornithological Committee (IOC). Rather than relying on existing translations, Jeannie approached each name with a fresh eye and went to primary material in Latin, Greek, French, Swedish and Italian, among others; it was a remarkable piece of scholarship on her part.

What has changed in the world of Australian bird names since the 2013 First Edition?

A surprising amount, actually! For instance, in the period between the first edition and when we finished writing again in October 2018 no less than 55 new species had been added to the Australian list in the form of vagrants. Most of these are due to the small industry that now exists to take dedicated and skillful birders out to the seas and islands north-west of Australia. Another major factor has been the rapid advance in the development of taxonomic tools to better understand relationships, which is the basis of taxonomy. In this way 21 species have been added by the taxonomic splitting of resident species; a significant example here is the expansion of the number of quail-thrushes from four to seven.


Black and white drawing of an Eastern Curlew

The Eastern Curlew, once known as the Australian Curlew. Image: Silvester Diggles (1877) Companion to Gould’s Handbook; or, Synopsis of the Birds of Australia. Thorne and Greenwell, Brisbane.


Are there any peculiarities in bird naming convention or history that is specific to Australia?

With regard to scientific names, no, not really – the rules governing naming are international and prescriptive. However vernacular names had to be found for the many bird groups which are unique to Australia, and we seem to have coined more than our share of weird and perhaps not so wonderful chimeric names – shrike-thrush, cuckoo-shrike, magpie-lark – using names of birds unrelated to each other and to the subject. Dry Australian humour has certainly played a part in some folk names, such as ‘CWA Bird’ for Apostlebird, or ‘Ha Ha Duck’ for Laughing Kookaburra. There is also the influence of the original Indigenous names.

How significant has this Indigenous influence been?

Unfortunately far too limited, in our view. It’s interesting that many more such names were adopted for mammals, but perhaps it was because they were often so obviously different that completely new names were needed, whereas many birds looked, to the untrained eye, sort-of familiar. Some obvious ones which have survived are currawong, kookaburra, boobook and gang-gang, all of which were surely onomatopoeic. However currawong doesn’t seem to have appeared in written English until the 20th century, and kookaburra received no formal recognition until the 1920s. Budgerigar on the other hand was used (in various forms) from the 1840s. There are regional uses of some names – Lowan for Mallee-fowl in Western Victoria in particular, though its use seems to be disappearing, and Quarrion for Cockatiel. We would love to see this situation change!


Black and white drawing of a Great Crested Grebe

The Great Crested Grebe, once known as the Australian Tippet Grebe. Image: Silvester Diggles (1877) Companion to Gould’s Handbook; or, Synopsis of the Birds of Australia. Thorne and Greenwell, Brisbane.


Do you have a favourite ‘story behind the name’?

My favourite derivation in Australia is probably ‘rosella’, which is probably familiar to many readers, but worthy of retelling anyway. The brightly coloured parrots around Parramatta, then known as Rose Hill, became Rose Hill Parrots, then Rose Hillers, which in time was elided to roselle or rosella… I first thought this one a tall story, but the steps are all recorded. Until the 1920s the Eastern Rosella was just Rosella, and the only one – other rosellas were just ‘parrots’.



Cover of Australian Bird Names Second Edition featuring a black and white drawing of a powerful owl on a white background

Australian Bird Names: Origins and Meanings (Second Edition)

Australian Bird Names is an entertaining and enlightening read, and can be purchased from our website or through your local bookstore.

Ian Fraser is a naturalist and conservationist who was awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006 and a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2018 for services to conservation and the environment. He is also the author of Birds in Their Habitats.

Jeannie Gray is a retired teacher and counsellor with a lifelong passion for the study of languages and natural history.