Chris Watson

What was the first name for grasswrens?

ResearchChris Watson

“The valid name of a taxon is the oldest available name applied to it, unless that name has been invalidated or another name is given precedence by any provision of the Code or by any ruling of the Commission.” -  International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Article 23: Principle of Priority

Clearly, the ICZN only applies to names provided through the Linnean system of scientific names. If this were not the case, our catalogue of scientific names for organisms should be peppered with the words of the Earth’s surviving Indigenous languages. Humans have been knocking about the planet for a couple of hundred thousand years or so and they must have always had names for the plants and animals familiar to them. Where those names persist, why do we not admit them to the Linnean system?

I only pose this question half-seriously. I’m not suggesting that the system of scientific naming which has served us perfectly well to this point needs such a shake-up. But it is an interesting thought to follow.

Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, an adult female in the MacDonnell Ranges. 

My current research interest is the grasswrens of the endemic Australian genus Amytornis. The range of these birds takes in a lot of Australia in which the human inhabitants are more likely to list an Indigenous language as their first, rather than English.

In Pitjantjatjara country therefore, we know that the local name for Rhipidura leucophrys is tjintir-tjintirpa. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the scientific name, if you’re musically inclined and have an ear for Australian bird songs, you might recognise tjintir-tjintirpa as an onomatopoeic rendition of the ratcheting call of the Willie Wagtail. Similarly, Taeniopygia guttata is nyii-nyii (Zebra Finch), Epthianura tricolor is miititi (Crimson Chat), Malurus splendens is mirilyirilyi (Splendid Fairy-wren) and, my personal favourite, Oreoica gutturalis is panpanpalala; a clearer evocation of the ringing song of the Crested Bellbird is difficult to imagine.

I’ve got dictionaries and bird lists in most of the Indigenous languages of Central Australia and the Western Desert. They’re all fairly comprehensive but, when it comes to grasswrens, all of my references either turn up a blank or provide confounding and imprecise results.

If I limit my search to just those species which occur in Central Australia, we’re dealing with a maximum of four species: Dusky, Sandhill, Thick-billed and Eyrean – Amytornis purnelli, A. oweni, A. modestus and A. goyderi respectively. In most of the references that mention grasswrens specifically, the Western Desert name given is the same as that applied to all three species of Malurus fairy-wren which occur in the region – mirilyirilyi. If it is the case that fairy-wrens and grasswrens are “lumped” in this fashion by Western Desert speakers then I have no qualms accepting that.

But I’m interested in putting the right name to things wherever possible. Being scientific means sometimes having to settle for a degree of imprecision if the available facts don’t support one conclusion or another. And species are mutable entities so no classification can ever be truly final. But vagueness is only acceptable after all lines of investigation have been exhausted. And my research certainly hasn't been exhaustive yet.

I think it unlikely that no distinction was drawn by early desert-dwellers between the fairy-wrens, with their males cycling through brightly-coloured breeding plumage and the grasswrens, whose males do not. At a passing glance the grasswrens and fairy-wrens share a superficial resemblance, but we’re not talking about casual acquaintance here. We’re talking about many millennia of co-habitation between humans who are highly attuned to their environment and the animals they share that environment with. Aside from obvious plumage differences, grasswrens are much more restrictive in their use of the landscape. So while fairy-wrens often occur in the same habitat as grasswrens, they also occur in an array of habitats in which grasswrens are decidedly absent. Certainly the two groups sound distinct from one another also.

Splendid Fairy-wren Malurus splendens - even to the untrained eye; pretty difficult to mistake for a grasswren.

So I'm trying to find the specific names for grasswrens species in the Indigenous languages of the country where they occur. I have a few leads already, but if anyone can help confirm or enrich any of the following I’d be overjoyed to hear from you.

1.       The bird list in the University of South Australia’s Wangka Wiru: a handbook for the Pitjantjatjara language learner, provides tjinytjililinpa as the name for a bird listed simply as “wren”.

2.       The Native Tribes of Central Australia by Baldwin Spencer & F. J. Gillen dating from 1899 mentions the “Striated Wren Amytis striata” (which is an anachronism for A. oweni), being referred to as lirra-lirra in the local tongue.

3.       Handbook to the Birds of Australia by John Gould gives nyern-de and jee-ra as names for Amytis macrourus (an early epithet for A. modestus), in the language of the “interior of Western Australia”.

4.       Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary by John Henderson and Veronica Dobson gives a lengthy list of bird names under the entry titled “types of small bird” with no further specific information. I’d love to hear from anyone who can give me an English name for any of the following:























5.       The same reference as (4), lists the name lyerre-lyerre as “wren” which agrees with (2) and (8).

6.       Ngaanyatjarra & Ngaatjatjarra to English Dictionary by Amee Glass and Dorothy Hackett gives an encouragingly restrictive listing. Tjinytjirlirlin(pa) is given as the name for both “Striated Grasswren: Amytornis striatus” – until recently, conspecific with A. oweni, and “Dusky Grasswren: Amytornis purnelli". This is tantalising and tallies well with the reference at (1) but even these two species of grasswren are quite visually and acoustically distinct and occupy different habitats.

7.       Kaytetye to English Dictionary by Myfany Turpin and Alison Ross has the name for Striated Grasswren (after recent taxonomic work now A. oweni in Kaytetye country) as ntyalkarlenye. Dusky Grasswren also occurs in Kaytetye country so clarification is needed.

8.       Central & Eastern Anmatyerr to English Dictionary by Jenny Green provides lyerr-lyerr and lyerretyelyerr as names for, “types of wrens, including fairy-wrens and grasswrens”. Again Dusky Grasswren occurs through this country as well so it would be good to get clarification. It also agrees well with Spencer & Gillen’s information at (2) and the reference at (5).

9.       Alyawarr to English Dictionary by Jenny Green provides antyarlkarleny as the name for “Amytornis sp.”, which in that part of the country could also be either A. purnelli or A. oweni.

In this search I have already been greatly assisted by comments and information from Marg Friedel, Mary Laughren, David Nash, and Bob Gosford has been immensely helpful in tracking down many of these references.

Can you help?

Perhaps you are (or know/work with) a native speaker of Central Australian languages. If you think you have any information that might clarify the use of any of the names that I have set out above please get in touch and let me know. I can be emailed at or you can use the “CONTACT CHRIS” form on this page.

If you are an Indigenous Ranger from Central Australia, or work with an Indigenous Ranger Group, perhaps you could spread these questions among your colleagues and see what turns up.

1.       Do you know grasswrens (as distinct from fairy-wrens)?

2.       Where do they live?

3.       What are they named?

My research is, so far, restricted in scope to Central Australia. However, grasswrens of different species occur in much of northern Australia as well. If you have any information relating to the Indigenous nomenclature of any species of grasswrens in any Indigenous languages, I’d enjoy hearing about your knowledge.

Thanks in advance for your help and thanks for reading.