13 September 2011 marked the 150th anniversary of the day that Alfred Howitt and his party reached the dig tree at Fort Wills, where the missing explorers Burke and Wills and their party had made their base for the trek to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Two days later a member of Howitt's party, Edwin Welch, found John King alive and being cared for by the local Aboriginal people. The remains of both Burke and Wills, who had died around the end of June, were found and buried a few days later.
There is a small but interesting group of specimens that Howitt collected on two expeditions to Cooper Creek, held in the Melbourne Museum. Amongst them are two specimens of the Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera.
The species had been described as the Plumed Pigeon by John Gould as early as 1842, from a specimen collected by Benjamin Bynoe, the ship's surgeon on the Beagle with Captain Fitzroy and Charles Darwin. He had treated Darwin for illness on the historic voyage. However the bird was known to the explorers of the 1860s as 'Sturt's Pigeon'.
Some years later, Howitt wrote that when he reached the dig tree he found 'the loose sandy soil was so run over by the tracks of birds and small animals that no traces of footprints could be seen'. He and Welch both noted in their journals the presence of 'crested pigeons' in the area. Howitt says they were 'numerous', Welch that they were in 'immense numbers'. The Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophotes was certainly present; there are two in Howitt's collection. But Howitt specifically states that it was the 'small crested pigeon, spoken of by Sturt' to which he referred.
Welch also remarked that the pigeons were a first rate change of diet, roasted on coals. Sturt's party had also enjoyed them, unlike the O. lophotes which he found 'neither tender nor well-flavoured'. Why Burke and Wills were unable to exploit this source of food as Howitt's party had done remains a mystery. Their deaths were the result of starvation. Is it possible the pigeons had only arrived in the area of Fort Wills in such numbers in the intervening eleven weeks between their deaths and Howitt's arrival?
The appendix to this two volume work includes a description of the birds encountered on the expedition. He states the pigeon was 'entirely confined to about thirty miles along the banks of that creek'.
The species is now known to be mainly sedentary. It is highly unlikely they would have suddenly arrived in this area during the winter months; most likely they were present all along. Sturt was the first to note their quail-like flight; strictly ground-feeders they would flush suddenly, fly a short distance, then go to cover and be difficult to flush again, preferring to run off through the scrub. Sturt also repeatedly noted the shyness of birds in his explorations throughout the region; it was difficult to get a shot at them. He described his pigeon as 'very wild'. These pigeons may well have eluded the exhausted Burke, Wills and King, along with other potential food sources such as the cockatoos and parrots that would also have almost certainly been in the area; they only seemed able to shoot a few crows that no doubt came nosing around too close to their camps.
Howitt's collection at Cooper Creek extends the range of the pigeon somewhat further south than it is usually found today. Their main range extends further north into the driest stony deserts where there is often no vegetation at all. They like rocky outcrops and are typically seen perched on a rock in the blazing sun in forty degree heat. It was in such a region that Sturt was forced to abandon his search for the inland sea and wrote in his weekly letter to his wife: 'The scene was awfully fearful, dear Charlotte. A kind of dread...came over me as I gazed upon it. It looked like the enrance into Hell'. His pigeons were perfectly at home around the 'entrance into hell'. Paradoxically, in spite of their fondness for blazing deserts, they are never far from water. But unlike Sturt, a muddy little puddle is enough for them.
Note: a version of this article was originally published in 2011 as a blog on the Museum Victoria website. Some time after that I travelled out to the Simpson Desert in search of Sturt's entrance to hell: what and why.
Text © Copyright Craig Robertson, 2020, except where otherwise attributed.
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