Australian raven

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 2020


Rainbow lorikeet, 1772
(Trichoglossus moluccunus)
Moses Griffith (1731-1791)
Goauche on vellum
National Library of Australia, Canberra

Keith Vincent Smith

The earliest known painting in colour of an Australian bird, dated to 1772, also depicts the first live Australian bird to reach England.

It is a portrait of a blue-bellied parrot known as the rainbow lorikeet or Blue Mountain Lorry, painted by Moses Griffith, a Welsh artist who was a servant to the naturalist and traveller Thomas Pennant.

Captured at Botany Bay in 1770, the bird was the pet of Tupaia, the Polynesian high priest from Raiatea in the mid-Pacific Ocean, who sailed with James Cook and the naturalist Joseph Banks aboard HM Bark Endeavour.

We don’t have a portrait of Tupaia, but we know that he learned the skill of painting from the European artists aboard the ship. For further information, see Keith Vincent Smith,  Tupaia’s Sketchbook, online in the Electronic British Library Journal, 2005.

At Kamay (Botany Bay) Tupaia carried a musket and shot parrots and other birds to eat. While there on 1 May 1770 Banks wrote in his journal:

The trees over our heads abounded very much with Loryquets and Cocatoos of which we shot several; both these sorts flew in flocks of several scores together.

The following day Banks noted:

Tupaia who strayd from us in pursuit of Parrots, of which he shot several, told us on return that he had seen nine Indians [Aboriginal people] who ran from him as soon as they perceived him.

The young Scots artist Sydney Parkinson, author of A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in HMS Endeavour (1773, page 136), who died in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), mentioned a ‘beautiful loriquet’ among

… a great number of birds of a beautiful plumage; among them were two sorts of parroquets, and a beautiful loriquet; we shot a few of them, which we made into a pie, and they ate very well.

When Tupaia died, also in Batavia, on 20 December 1770, his lorikeet was taken to England by Banks, who gave it to Marmaduke Tunstall, who said it had belonged to the ‘unfortunate Tupaia’. 

Tunstall, a Fellow of the Royal Society in London and a friend of Sir Joseph Banks, its President, added Tupaia’s pet to his private museum in London, where he kept both live and preserved birds. He later presented it to the Newcastle Museum, now called the Great North Museum, in Hancock, Newcastle, UK.

Blue-headed and bellied Parrot, 1776
(Rainbow lorikeet)
Peter Brown
Hand-coloured engraving
Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

A second image of Tupaia’s pet bird was painted in England by Peter Brown, an artist of Danish descent who was botanical artist for the Prince of Wales in 1774. The coloured engraving appeared in New Illustrations of Zoology, printed in London. 

The accompanying caption reads:

November 3 1774
A native of New South Wales, in New Holland, very numerous in Botany Bay. This bird was brought over by Sir Joseph Banks, esq.

Moowatin Creek and the Cataract of Carrung-gurring, 1 January 1814
Plate V111, Atlas
Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, London 1814
Mitchell Library, Sydney

Keith Vincent Smith

George Caley, the self-taught botanist sent to New South Wales by Sir Joseph Banks, took his Aboriginal bird and plant collector Daniel Moowattin with him when  they sailed from Sydney to England in May 1810. Caley also took his pet white cockatoo called Jack with them on the frigate Hindostan.

There are no images of either Caley or Moowattin, but the name of his guide and specimen collector ‘Dan’ Moowattin was given by Caley to Moowattin Creek, flowing into the ‘Cataract of Carrung Gurring’ (now called the Cataract River and Appin Falls) on a map published by the explorer Matthew Flinders in London in 1814.

Caley told Sir Joseph Banks that he had named the river ‘to commemorate the memory of the native to whom I am indebted for the discovery of the cataract’.

In ‘Daniel Moowattin in Regency London’, Chapter 11 in MARI NAWI: Aboriginal Odysseys (Rosenberg, 2010, page 129) I wrote:

A droll trio could be seen walking through the streets of London on the fine, warm morning of Thursday 4 April 1811, the day of Caley’s departure for his native Yorkshire. Caley first saw Sir Joseph Banks at Soho Square and then went to the canal office in Paddington accompanied by George Suttor and Dan, who carried Jack the cockatoo, caged in a hamper ‘which he pecked all to pieces’. Jack was troublesome on the journey, but was very quiet when released.


While in London, Caley gave ‘a Rose Hill and a Blue Mountain Parrot’ to William Townsend Aiton, a botanist and director of Kew Gardens, who laid out the gardens at Buckingham Palace, London.  I would guess that these were stuffed birds from Caley’s collection.

Caley said the rosella was first called the ‘Rose Hill parrot’ after the first name given by Governor Arthur Phillip to Parramatta, where it was commonly seen. In time it was abbreviated to ‘Rosehiller’ and finally ‘rosella’.

In October 1811 Moowattin and Suttor, a nurseryman previously employed by Banks, boarded the convict vessel Mary at Portsmouth, to return to Sydney, which they reached on 12 May 1812.

Jack outlived Daniel Moowattin, who was hanged for rape in Sydney on 1 November 1816. ‘The cockatoo I have still’, Caley told Suttor, in a letter sent from Yorkshire on 12 July 1825.
[George Suttor, Letters, ML MSS 2417/4:233, Mitchell Library, Sydney]

Caley made provision for Jack to be looked after in his will, made in London on  16 May 1829. He wrote:

I do desire that Maria [his servant] … shall take care of my cockatoo which I caught in the woods in New South Wales and which I have deprived of liberty for twenty years.

George Caley died a few days later, on 23 May 1829.

See also: Keith Vincent Smith, Moowattin, Daniel (1791-1816) on the Australian Dictionary of Biography, online at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moowattin-daniel-13107

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020