Gould in the field

The success of Gould's various business and scientific endeavours relied on an uninterrupted supply of bird specimens that had been collected from all around the world. A number of Gould's contemporaries suggest that he was more at home behind a desk sorting his bird skins than out in the bush collecting them.

Fiery Parrakeet - Platycercus ignitus

Leone Lemmer © Australian Museum Research Library

For much of his life, Gould gained access to material by working the international specimen trade and coordinating the activities of his employees and associates out in the field.

However, Gould did venture out into the field himself. He spent a challenging 19 months in Australia, during one of its worst droughts, observing bird and mammal life in the wild and collecting thousands of specimens.

John and Elizabeth in Australia

Recognising the lack of any comprehensive publication on The Birds of Australia, John Gould sailed for Australia in May 1838 to collect data. His travelling party included his wife, eldest son, and his collector, John Gilbert. During their stay, John and Elizabeth Gould were separated for extended periods of time and their experiences are documented in their letters. While John was out in the field in Tasmania, New South Wales and South Australia, Elizabeth spent much of her time in Hobart preparing sketches and waiting for the birth of their son, Franklin Tasman.

In August 1839, the Gould's travelled from Tasmania to New South Wales, visiting Sydney and Newcastle before basing themselves at Stephen Coxen's property at Yarrundi, near Scone

Gould collected 800 bird specimens, 70 quadrupeds and the nests and eggs of more than 70 species of birds and the skeletons of all the principal forms, making notes on them and their habitats. Once enough material had been collected to commence The Birds of Australia, Gould and his family departed Australia on 9 April 1840.

Naming and describing species

Naming things that have already been named could be considered a form of intellectual colonisation but, for the new Australians, it was also a way of making their habitat familiar. For a collector like Gould, there was glory in naming a new species that provided international recognition. Gould wrote over 300 scientific articles and identified 377 new species of birds.

Indigenous names collected by Gould

'I am particularly anxious that you should obtain on the east coast and in New South Wales[,] even about Sydney[,] as many of the aboriginal names of Mammals and Birds as you can[,] particularly the origin of the word Kangaroo[,]'

Gould to his collector, Gilbert, in 1844.

Gould was unusual in that he actively sought out the Indigenous names of the specimens he collected. He realised the importance of developing relationships with the Aboriginal people as they were a key part of the success of his field work. Knowing the Aboriginal names meant Gould could specify what he wanted collected.

Indigenous Bird Names of the Hunter Region of New South Wales
Aboriginal name Gould's common name Common name Gould's scientific name Scientific name Gould's notes
Beleck-Beleck and Balangara Lyre-bird Superb Lyrebird Menura superba Menura novaehollandiae Aborig.
Coldong Friar bird Noisy Friarbird Tropidorhynchus corniculatus Philemon corniculatus Aborig. of NSW
Dilbong/Dilring Australian Bell-bird Bell Miner/ Bell Bird Myzantha melanophrys Manorina melanophrys Aborig. of NSW
Wy-la Funereal Cockatoo Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo Calyptorhynchus funereus Calyptorhynchus funereus Aborig. of the Hunter in NSW
Betcherrygah Warbling Grass Parakeet Budgerigar Melopsittacus undulatus Melopsittacus undulatus Natives of the Liverpool Plains
War-in Swainson's Lorikeet Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus swainsonii Trichoglossus haematodus Aborig. of NSW
Wee-lah Wattled Talegalla Australian Brush-turkey Talegalla lathami Alectura lathami Aborig. of the Namoi
Kalloo-nagh Wattled Pewit Masked Lapwing/ Wattled Plover Lobivanellus lobatus Vanellus miles Aborig. of NSW
Wonga-wonga Wonga Wonga Wonga Pigeon Leucosarcia picata Leucosarcia melanoleuca Aborig. of NSW
Djou Coach-whip bird Eastern Whipbird Psophodes crepitans Psophodes olivaceus Aborig. of NSW
Bur-ril Rufous-fronted fantail Rufous fantail Rhipidura rufifrons Rhipidura rufifrons Aborig. of NSW
Cowry Satin Bower-bird Satin Bowerbird Ptilonorhyncus holosericeus Ptilonorhyncus violaceus Aborig. of NSW

Mammals of Australia

In addition to his work on ornithology, Gould also produced A Monograph of the Macropodidae or Family of Kangaroos (2 parts, 30 plates 1841 - 42) and The Mammals of Australia (3 volumes, 182 plates 1845 - 63). He wrote, in explanation of this departure from birds:

It was not until I arrived in the country, and found myself surrounded by objects as strange as if I had been transported to another planet, that I conceived the idea of devoting a portion of my attention to the mammalian class of its extraordinary fauna.


Matthew Stephens
Ms Leone Lemmer
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