What’s in a reputation? The renaming of the pink cockatoo is not any small factor in Australia’s violent historical past | Andrew Stafford

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The pink cockatoo has had a couple of names through the years. The daddy of Australian ornithology, John Gould, knew it as Leadbeater’s cockatoo, following the scientific title given to it in 1831, Cacatua leadbeateri. This was named after Benjamin Leadbeater, the London naturalist and taxidermist whose title additionally commemorates Victoria’s faunal emblem, Leadbeater’s possum.

Sir Thomas Mitchell, the surveyor normal of New South Wales from 1828 to 1855, referred to as it the red-top cockatoo. He was awestruck by its magnificence. “Few birds extra enliven the monotonous hues of the Australian forest than this stunning species whose pink-coloured wings and flowing crest might need embellished the air of a extra voluptuous area,” he gushed.

It was for this lavish description that the pink cockatoo, now formally categorized as endangered, was renamed Main Mitchell’s cockatoo in 1977, after a survey of members of the Royal Australian Ornithologists Union (now BirdLife Australia) – a vote which the organisation’s public affairs supervisor, Sean Dooley, describes ruefully as “a little bit of a Boaty McBoatface second”.

It was actually unlucky to call such a wonderful fowl after a mass killer. In 1836, on the euphemistically named Mount Dispersion, Mitchell encountered the Indigenous Kureinji and Barkindji individuals on the banks of the Murray River. His account of what occurred there, unsparing in its brutality, stands in stark distinction to his rhapsodic description of the cockatoo:

“It was tough to return at such enemies hovering in our rear with the lynx-eyed vigilance of savages … Attacked concurrently by each events, the entire betook themselves to the river, my males pursuing them and capturing as many as they may. Numbers had been shot swimming throughout the Murray, and a few ever after that they had reached the alternative shore.”

It’s due primarily to this incident – Mitchell’s starring contribution to Australia’s frontier wars, for which he solely ever obtained a gentle rebuke – that BirdLife Australia has just lately reverted to utilizing the outdated title pink cockatoo in official correspondence. It’s a part of a push by the organisation to look at the utility of eponymous names extra usually.

In a current paper for the ornithological journal Emu, the environmental scientist Stephen Garnett argued that fowl names ought to be culturally and socially inclusive. Widespread names are a historic reflection of the ability constructions of society. Naming locations and their fauna after their colonial conquerors is essentially the most bare expression of dominance and possession.

For those who’ll forgive the phrase, the reversion to pink cockatoo represents the tip of the spear within the wider revision of Australian fowl names. “It’s the simple one, as a result of it’s essentially the most contentious,” Dooley says. There was little or no pushback. “A number of individuals have harrumphed and mentioned that this decolonising of names is political correctness gone mad. However that’s just one or two voices.”

He factors out that pink cockatoo has been the predominant white Australian epithet given to the species anyway, beginning with the RAOU’s first official guidelines in 1926, and Australia’s first discipline information, Neville Cayley’s What Fowl is That (1931). There are lots of First Nations names for the cockatoo, the very best recognized being the Wiradjuri wijugla, whimsically anglicised as “wee juggler”.

The extra sensible drawback with eponymous names (and others reflecting their colonial origins: emperor and royal penguin, princess parrot and so forth) is their lack of utility. They inform us nothing concerning the species. Even the multihued Gouldian finch – an iconic species named not after John, however his spouse, Elizabeth – is best described by the choice, rainbow finch.

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The question of utility could potentially call into question the use of colloquial names such as galah and willie wagtail. But such names are an entrenched part of the Australian vernacular, used affectionately for some of our most familiar species. The fact that willie wagtails are in decline, like many of our most common birds, should give us all pause.

The reversion to pink cockatoo will become final with the release of BirdLife Australia’s next Working List of Australian Birds. That will take some time. “If you’ll excuse the pun, we’re trying to get all our ducks in a row,” Dooley says. In the digital age, it’s complicated, with various databases and apps needing to be updated.

At least common names, unlike scientific names, are subject to change. Spare a thought, if you will, for Anophthalmus hitleri, a Slovenian beetle pushed to the brink of extinction by collectors of Nazi memorabilia. More recently, a Panamanian amphibian, Dermophis donaldtrumpi, as well as a Californian moth, were named after the former US president.

According to New Scientist, these names were bestowed ironically, with the intention of drawing attention to Trump’s appalling environmental legacy. It notes that while these scientific names remain immutable, any ironic motivation is likely to be forgotten in the future.

The renaming of the pink cockatoo, on the other hand, is an act of remembrance and respect. And that is no minor matter.

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