Keith Vincent Smith
The drawn-out cawing of the sleek black Australian crows and ravens sounds more like a complaint than a song. It has been described as a ‘guttural gurgle’ or a ‘harsh staccato call’.
Noisy crows and ravens are spread throughout the world and there are many stories about them. Here is one that involves the spiritual beliefs of the Eora of coastal Sydney.
One day Surgeon George Worgan of HMS Sirius was about to shoot a crow perched in a tree, but as he levelled his gun to fire, an Aboriginal man ran forward and put his hand over the muzzle, crying out ‘Bau Bau Bau Bau’ – ‘meaning as I conjectured,’ wrote Worgan, ‘that I was not to kill it (for they had seen the Effects of the Gun) I complied with his Request, and laughed off the Offence I had seemingly given, at which, he laughed likewise and seemed mightily pleased’.
[George Bouchier Worgan, Journal kept on a voyage to New South Wales with the First Fleet, with letter written to his brother Richard, 12-18 June 1788]
It is usual to interpret Worgan’s anecdote as meaning that the bright-eyed Australian crow had a special significance to the man and was very likely his totem. A deeper understanding is revealed if we reflect that the Indigenous word for a crow was worgan or worogan. It follows that the Eora man had bravely prevented the surgeon shooting what was, in his eyes, Worgan’s own totem.
The Eora usually made it their business to find out the names of the foreigners. ‘They are very fond of asking your names,’ wrote Lieutenant Ralph Clark in his journal after meeting Dourrawan and Tirriwan at Lane Cove in February 1790. ‘I told them mine yesterday, which the[y] recollected and called me by it today.’
[See Tirriwan and Dourrawan, 14 June 2017 on this website]
How astonished the Parramatta River people must have been (on this or another occasion) when the surgeon shot and winged a crow that he held in his hand and waved to try to entice them ashore from their canoes.
William Bradley continues the story:
Finding that they would not land the Surgeon threw the Bird towards them, which having recovered itself flew away & joined some others in a Tree close by, this uncommon circumstance which could not appear to them short of our having power to give & take life, astonished them so much, that they remained quite silent sometime & then all joined in a loud exclamation of wonder.
[William Bradley, A Voyage to New South Wales:The Journal of Lieutenant William Bradley RN of HMS Sirius, 1786-1792, Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 1969, pages 98-99]
Surgeon Worgan obviously did not understand the significance of the crow as a spiritual emblem and continued to shoot and eat the birds. ‘With famine staring us in the face,’ he wrote later, ‘happy is the man that can kill a rat or crow to make him a dainty meal’.
Some years later, Lieutenant David Collins, who had read an English newspaper article about the Aboriginal man throwing himself in front of the surgeon’s gun, ridiculed the inference drawn by the writer that ‘the bird was an object of worship’, while bearing out the bird’s link with Worgan in particular by stating: ‘I can with confidence affirm, that so far from dreading to see a crow killed they [the Aboriginal people] are very find of eating it.’
[Adapted from Keith Vincent Smith, ‘Rites of Passage’, Chapter 14 in Bennelong, Kangaroo Press / Simon & Schuster, East Roseville, 2001]
As Tim Low remarks in his masterful work Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world (Viking 2014, page 64) ‘Many songbirds are not musical to our ears at all,’ citing crows and sparrows, ‘and they are best thought of as birds with sophisticated calls that are partly learned’.
Daniel Moowattin, an Aboriginal orphan from Parramatta, collected botanical and bird specimens for George Caley, the botanist sent to Port Jackson in 1800 by Sir Joseph Banks. In May 1810 Caley took ‘Dan’ Moowattin with him on the frigate HMS Hindostan to London, where he lived for a year before returning to Sydney in May 1812.
[See CALEY’S COCKATOO, 14 July 2018 on this website]
As Daniel and Caley walked together from Chelsea to Kew Gardens via Fulham on the cold, frosty morning of 20 February 1811 they heard crows calling, as Caley recalled in his notes published 15 years later in the Transactions of the Linnaean Society in London.
This bird is gregarious and not to be met with at all times. Its native name is Wa’gan.—Moowattin, a native follower of mine, tells me that it makes its nest like the Ca’ruck, but that he never met with more than one nest, which was in a Coray’ba tree at the Devil’s Back, about 4 miles from Prospect Hill … I have observed that the croak of this bird is not so hoarse as that of C. corone. This was also remarked by the same native when with me in this country (England) on hearing a Crow one morning near Fulham’.
[NA Vigors and TA Horsfield, ‘A description of the Australian Birds in the Collections of the Linnaean Society’, Transactions of the Linnaean Society, Vol. XV, London: 1826: 262]
Wa’gan is the raven (Corvus coronoides), Ca’ruck, the Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) and the Coray’bo tree is thought to be Eucalyptus maculata, the spotted gum, which Daniel said was ‘taller than the pines at Norfolk Island’, which he visited with Caley in 1805. Caley agreed.
Caley’s ‘Devils Back’ is 4 kilometres north-nor-east of the present Cecil Park, a suburb of Sydney, near the road from Liverpool to Mulgoa.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2018