What is in a name? From Major Mitchell to Ghellar-lec (Gellarlec)

(Image from Gould, The Birds of Australia)

[The draft notes for an essay on the naming of birds, written in early 2022]

Background notes from Wikipedia and other sources:

COMMON NAMES: Major Mitchell’s cockatoo, Leadbeater’s cockatoo, pink cockatoo, desert cockatoo, wee juggler, cocklerina, chockalott

Indigenous names: Jak-kul-yak-kul,   Aborigines   of   the   mountain   districts   of   Western   Australia. 

Ghellar-lec, The Boorong people of Lake Tyrrell, in the Mallee country of what is now known as north-west Victoria

See also: “Major Mitchell’s cockatoo” has been designated the official name by the International Ornithologists’ Union (IOC).[9] “Pink cockatoo” was its official name (with Major Mitchell as an alternative) in the 1926 official RAOU checklist.[10] The bird became linked to Major Thomas Mitchell after he described the species in glowing terms in his books on his expeditions, calling it the “cockatoo of the interior”. Mitchell himself called it the red-top cockatoo. Before this John Gould had called it Leadbeater’s cockatoo (derived from the species name) in 1848,[4] as had Lear in 1832.[5] Gould added that people of the Swan River Colony called it pink cockatoo, and recorded an indigenous name Jak-kul-yak-kul[11] Other names include desert cockatoo, and chockalott, chock-a-lock, joggle-joggle, and wee juggler, the last anglicised from the Wiradjuri wijugla.[4] In Central Australia south of Alice Springs, the Pitjantjatjara term is kakalyalya.[12] Names recorded from South Australia include kukkalulla (Kokatha dialect of Western Desert language), nkuna and ungkuna (Arrernte), yangkunnu (Barngarla), and yangwina (Wirangu),[13] and yel-le-lek (from the Wimmera), and cal-drin-ga (from the lower Murray).[14] (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_Mitchell%27s_cockatoo )

SCIENTIFIC NAMECacatua Lophocroa leadbeateri or Cacatua leadbeateri

ADULT SIZE: 13 to 15 inches in length

LIFE EXPECTANCY: 40 to 60 years in the wild; up to 80 years in captivity

cockatoo (n.)

Name given to various birds of the parrot family, 1610s, from Dutch kaketoe, from Malay (Austronesian) kakatua, possibly echoic, or from kakak “elder brother or sister” + tua “old.” Also cockatiel, cockateel (1863), from Dutch diminutive kaketielje (1850), which is perhaps influenced by Portuguese. Spelling influenced by cock (n.1).


The word ‘cockatoo’ has its origins in Malay and means ‘vice’ or ‘grip’ because of their incredibly strong beak.

Bird Origin and History

“The Major Mitchell’s cockatoo is native to inland Australia. These birds nest in pairs in woodlands and treeless areas, always near water. They can become nomadic during dry periods. They tend not to nest near other pairs, which means they require a large territory. However, they do often hang around galah cockatoos, another Australian native. The wild population of Major Mitchell’s cockatoos are dwindling due to human development of their native habitat.

Named for Major Sir Thomas Mitchell, an explorer and surveyor of Australia and admirer of the species, its scientific name “leadbeateri” commemorates ornithologist Benjamin Leadbeater. Leadbeater was a London-based natural history merchant who supplied specimens to the British Museum “(https://www.thesprucepets.com/major-mitchells-cockatoos-390567 )


Righting Naming Wrongs

The bird world, no less than any other domain that has a legacy deep within the history of sexism, racism and colonialism, has an obligation to attend to that legacy in the light of twenty-first century social change movements that question the ethical and legal legitimacy of that legacy.

Institutions such as slavery, right from their outset, were predicated on racist notions of the inherent superiority of white European people, their cultures and institutions. People of certain skin colours, especially those classified as ‘black’ by colonial invaders in what was once called ‘the new world’ were subjugated to slavery and land take-over by force. The moral force of the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA has even led to the re-evaluation of the role of John James Audubon in the history of colonial ornithology. The Audubon Society, despite being the USA’s premier ornithological body, is even considering the case for dropping the name of Audubon because of the well documented links between John James and slavery and the mistreatment of people of colour.

Sexism and patriarchy are also important considerations in the naming of birds. Names as innocent sounding as ‘kingfisher’ or King Parrot, have within them the presentation of the masculine, in this case a male ruler by royal descent, as the norm for all members of that species. Eponymous names for birds might also present difficulties as even famous ornithologists such as John Gould have birds named after his surname.

However, even here it is complicated as John Gould named the Gouldian finch, not after himself, but after his wife, Elizabeth. The clue of the feminine, gouldiae, in the Latin name of this bird is lost on many. Perhaps John Gould was an early example of a man sensitive to the patriarchy and the invisibility of women in the ornithological world of his time. The moral force of the Me Too movement and the earlier iterations of the women’s liberation movement in the twentieth century must require the critical evaluation of species’ names that reflect past periods in history when such injustices were not considered ethically problematic.

If we are to question the legitimacy of common names of bird species by taking into account the ethical considerations of historical and contemporary racism and sexism, we might be surprised by the results.

Cancelling and Genocidal Colonialism

In Australia, not only did the colonial invaders take over the lands of subjugated peoples, they actively ‘cancelled’ the Indigenous names of the life forms and landscape features of the lands in question. Very few colonial invaders took notice of this de-naming, however, there is one good example in Australia of an early colonial observer who, in 1834, noted the priority of Indigenous names:

Indeed, every remarkable point of land, every hill and valley in the territory, has its native name, given, as far as can be ascertained from particular instances, from some remarkable feature of the particular locality… (Lang 1834:87).

With respect to the Hunter River, known as the Coquun by Indigenous people, Lang also commented on the cancelling of the Indigenous names of two of the Coquun tributaries. At what we now call Raymond Terrace, the Coquun is met by a river called the Dooribang (the Williams).  Near Hinton, another river, the Yimmang (the Paterson) enters the Hunter. Lang was able to find out the names of the tributaries of the lower Hunter River from an Indigenous man named Wallaby Joe (Lang 1834:89). Both the Williams and Paterson rivers were named after Colonel William Paterson, then a surveyor of the NSW Corps. Lang was outraged that the original Aboriginal names were replaced, then forgotten, for the sake of “whatever insignificant appendage to the colonial government a colonial surveyor may think to immortalize” (Lang 1834:88, in Albrecht 2000).

The de-naming of rivers has also occurred to the biodiversity in general. The Indigenous names of non-human beings have been retained in cultures using ‘language’ and still emplaced in traditional land, but in Australia, many traditional names have been lost as they are no longer in use. As Indigenous people all over Australia regain their sense of place or “country”, they are also re-learning language using memory fragments and the names of non-human species recorded by early pioneers, explorers and naturalists.

In particular, for the birdlife of Australia, the Indigenous names appear in lists compiled by early explorers, pioneer ornithologists or other bird people who have been considerate enough to acknowledge prior naming in their own publications. In doing this they have transcribed the phonetic Indigenous ‘name’ into an equivalent English written rendition. 

While some Australian birds have been re-named or newly named with Indigenous names, this has usually occurred when a specific Indigenous name is clearly linked to a confined bioregion location for the bird and the language group of the people of that place and with the approval of the traditional owners of the land. For example, “from a newly recognised subspecies of grasswren that occurs on a single sand dune in Yathong Nature Reserve – allowed us to adopt, with approval of relevant elders – the name Mukarrthippi Grasswren as its official common name.” (Stephen Garnett pers comm 2020).

However, under pressure from various post-colonial forces, including the land rights movement and anti-racist ethical claims of injustice, we have seen worldwide a renewed effort to removed the names of species that are connected to past injustice and illegalities. One such case study involves a bird known as Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo (Cacatua leadbeateri). This bird gets its common name from Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell who was Surveyor-General of the Colony of New South Wales from 1827 until his death in 1855.

There is historical evidence that Mitchell was involved in the abduction of Indigenous children and the ‘Mount Dispersion Massacre’ (1836) where a number of tribal people were killed. He was reprimanded for this ‘action’ but no further punishment was recommended as he put a case for ‘self-defence’ from aggression. It might be argued that in the use of his name for the cockatoo would be unacceptable in the contemporary context of BLM and that the name Major Mitchell be replaced with another more acceptable one.

Mitchell, according to John Gould, also thought that while the bird was beautiful, it inhabited an environment that was ‘beneath’ its beauty. Gould states:

Few   birds   tend   more   to   enliven   the   monotonous   hues   of   the   Australian   forests   than   this   beautiful   species, whose “pink-coloured   wings   and   glowing   crest,” says   Sir   T.   Mitchell,   might   have   embellished   the   air   of  a   more   voluptuous   region.” 

It might be argued that not only was Mitchell racist in his views, he was also anti-ecological in that he failed to see the relationship between a bird and its environment and hence devalues the inland ecosystems to which this bird belongs.

Barry Goanna on Mitchell:

When anyone drives around northern and western Victoria in Dja Dja Wurrung country and sees the prominent stone Major Mitchell monuments with their brass arrows pointing to the way the Major went, it would be well to remember that Mitchell was also a self-confessed Aboriginal child stealer. Mitchell was also officially sanctioned for his unnecessary dispersion (massacre) of Aborigines during this same expedition on the Murray. https://barrygoanna.com/2020/05/01/abduction-and-child-stealing-re-examination-of-mitchell-in-dja-dja-wurrung-country-1836/


On the basis of the information presented above, there is a strong case for re-naming the Australian bird known as Major Mitchells cockatoo. Candidates from Indigenous names should be the first to be considered, although it must be acknowledged that different regions of arid Australia had different names for the same bird. Hence, getting agreement on a single common name could be difficult.

The internationally accepted name, Pink Cockatoo, invites confusion because of the ‘Pink and Grey’ Galah, another type of Australian cockatoo that is predominately pink in colour.

One thing all humans share is the night sky so a naming narrative that is connected to a constant in the night sky is one that might unite all views of this bird under one name?

The Boorong people of Lake Tyrrell, in the Mallee country of what is now known as north-west Victoria, had just such a cockatoo story. Because their culture and language were substantially ‘lost’ in the colonisation process, information about their knowledge comes mainly from non-indigenous sources. The accuracy of white ethnographic interpretation is open to question, however, they are the only fragments we have left.

The life and culture of the Boorong was recorded by one William Stanbridge (c1841-). They saw an image in the night sky that was centred on the pink star known in contemporary astronomy as Aldebaran or Alpha Tauri. It is a giant star that shines pinkish-red in colour in the night sky. The image was interpreted as ‘Ghellar-lec’ (gellarlec), an old man singing and beating time with clap sticks also with connections to both the ‘rose’ colour and quavering voice of the ‘pink’ cockatoo. From Stanbridge’s notes:

Ghellar-lec (Aldebaran), Rose Cockatoo, (Cacatue Lead-beateri). An old man chanting, and beating time to Kulkun- bulla and Larnan-kurrk. (W. Stanbridge on the Aborigines of Victoria. 303 https://archive.org/stream/jstor-3014201/3014201_djvu.txt ).

John Morieson wrote a thesis on ‘The Night Sky of the Boorong, Partial Reconstruction of a Disappeared Culture in North-West Victoria’ (1966) he presents his own interpretation of the night sky and Gellarec:

From his thesis he relates:

Visual reference

 It took a long time to find GelIarlec. With other figures, the star named by Stanbridge is a central element in the symmetry of the outline, e.g. Berm berm gle, Djuit, Marpeankurrk, Totyarguil, Wanjel, War, Warepil, Yerredetkurrk, Yurree. But this is not the case with GelIarlec. It wasn’t until I allowed Aldebaran to be Gellarlec’s left elbow that I could satisfactorily create an image of a man using boomerangs as clap sticks.

Ecological reference

The pink cockatoo has a distinctive voice, a “quavering, falsetto, two-note cry”. Its face, neck and under pants are pink. Its habitat includes North-West Victoria. (Simpson and Day, 1993: 134).

Cultural reference

When writing about the meeting of clans for ceremonial purposes Stanbridge writes; “On the first night strangers are invited to witness a display of skill in dancing by the tribes of the neighbourhood. A large fire being made, the spectators are arranged on one side of it, and on their left a group of females is seated to sing and drum upon opossum rugs to the time of the conductor, an old man, who chants and beats time with two hard pieces of wood … ; he walks to and fro between the drummers and dancers, at first doing so very slowly, but gradually increasing in speed until he attains the utmost quickness”. (Stanbridge, 1861: 296).

Mathews writes; “When all the invited tribes have reached the common meeting ground, a series of special corroborees commences. The first of this series takes place on the evening of the day of arrival of the last mob. At this dance, while the women are beating their folded skins as usual, an old man taps a couple of sticks together and stamps one foot on the ground [to commence the dance] … different words are employed at each dance in prescribed order.” (Mathews, 1904: 309).

John Cotton wrote in 1844, when describing “the corrobborree or native dance”; 79 “A singer, one of the men, stands by the musicians beating time with two sticks which if well selected give out a sound something approaching to that of a triangle. ” (Billis and Kenyon 1974(a):250-1). 80 A.C. Le Souef wrote, “one of the oldest men, generally a man of note, acts as leader [in the corroboree].

Thus Gellarlec is not just any old man who wants to drum up a song. Gellarlec is the song man, the one whose memory is sound, whose integrity is unquestioned and whose job it is to remember the words, the order in which the songs are sung and to be the master of ceremonies. (Brough Smyth, 1878; 2: 294)

Geographic reference

Kellalac is a parish and locality name for a farming district south of Warracknabeal, County of Borung. (Blake, 1977: 140).” (Morieson 1966).”

My reference

While I respect Morieson’s interpretation, I feel that the pink star, may represent more than the ‘song man”. I see in the pattern, the head and crest of a cockatoo. The pink star is the point of its crest.

Regardless of interpretation, I put the case that Gellarlec is an appropriate common name for the bird that was once called Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo or the Pink Cockatoo.

While interpretations might be contested, that there is a fixed point of reference (Aldebaran) to this bird in an ancient culture should be sufficient to give it priority over all other interpretations.  In undertaking this re-naming, a past injustice is corrected.

It is my hope that the Indigenous people of those parts of Australia inhabited by Gellarlec can agree that this name is a suitable candidate for the de-colonisation of this special bird. Finally, we also erase Mitchell’s ignorant insults to the landscapes and people where this bird is to found. In its connection to the pink star, dance, song and the wisdom of elders, Gellarlec should regain its pre-eminent place in the night and day skies.

References (select)

Gould, John (1848). The Birds of Australia. Volume 6. London: Printed by R. and J. E. Taylor; pub. by the author, 1840–1848. pp. Pl. 2, et seq.


Lang, J.D., (1834) An historical and statistical account of New South Wales, Vol. II, London, Cochrane and M’Crone.

Morieson, J (1966) http://www.aboriginalastronomy.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Morieson_Thesis.pdf

Stanbridge, W. 1861. Some particulars of the general characteristics, astronomy and mythology of the tribes in central part of Victoria. Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London. 1 (22)


“GelIarlec (Rose or Eos Cockatoo (Aldebaran), an old man chanting, and beating time to KulkunbulIa and Larnankurrk.” (Stanbridge, 1857: 139).


2 thoughts on “What is in a name? From Major Mitchell to Ghellar-lec (Gellarlec)

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