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Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Cocky Saturday

Oops! I accidentally deleted this, so here it is again.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo,
Cacatua galerita.

As a noun, Australians know three meanings for "cocky". It can be a cockroach, or a parrot-like bird, or a farmer. The second and third meanings are said to be related, and the farmer version goes back some distance: Elizabeth Ramsay-Laye encountered it around 1853:

    Further on we passed close to a very flourishing little farm, and on my pointing it out to one of the Miss R——’s, she said, “Oh! a cockatoo.” Thinking she had misunderstood me, I said, “I mean that pretty little farm.” “Yes,” she repeated, “we call that a ‘cockatoo;’ small farmers who settle themselves on another person’s run are so called here.” This perhaps gives the best idea of an Australian run, when such an intrusion is of no moment.
    — Elizabeth Ramsay-Laye, Social Life and Manners in Australia, 1861, 50.

Breaker Morant used the term "cocky" in one of his rollicking verses in 1894.

    It was a Western manager, and a language-man was he,
    Thus spoke he to the shed-boss*: “Send ‘The Rager’ round to me;
    I’ll hie me to the office where I’ll write his crimson cheque,
    Bid him roll his dusty swag up, or I’ll break his no-good neck.”

    So when the bell was ringing—when “smoke-oh” time was o’er,
    Says the shed-boss, “Mick, your services are wanted here no more.”
    Then “The Rager” hung his shears up, stepped from the shearing floor,
    And went a-swapping swear-words round at the office-door.

    For the boss began to language, and “The Rager” languaged back;
    Says “The Rager”, “There’s my brother, can’t you give him, too, the sack?”
    “Your brother? D—n your brother! Yes, send him round here quick!”
    “That narks yez,” Michael answered—”he’s a cocky down in Vic*.”

    — Breaker Morant (1856 – 1902), 1894.
Two points of translation here: the shed boss was a shearing shed supervisor and "Vic" is the state of Victoria.

wet cocky
wet cocky
There are two alleged and related derivations of cocky-the-farmer: either early settlers, sowing seed, found that the cockatoos came and dug them up, causing them to say "Look at me paddock — I'm just growing cockies," and the other is similar. Basically, a cocky is a small-scale farmer, and we speak of cow-cockies, wheat-cockies, and might discuss sheep-cockies.

My interest is with the feathered variety. This is Saturday, it's raining, and two cockies came to visit. They often perch on the light fitting, outside my study: see the picture above. Two wet ones sat on the balcony railing today, probably hoping for a feed, but anybody feeding them is asking for trouble. These birds are gangsters, and they move around in mobs, and feeding them is to invite an invasion of extremely destructive birds who can shred timber and rubber trims.

Some 30 years ago, a neighbour who was a bit of a fruit loop, had a cocky problem of his own making. He would run around his balcony, flailing at them with a big stick, but they liked it there, and just moved out of reach.

Somebody (and we all knew who) tracked them to their roosting tree, threw a string over a branch, and hauling up two sticks of gelignite, and setting them off at night. The police helicopter came around, suspecting thieves had been trying to "blow" a safe, but they found nothing: we found a few feathers under the tree, but there was no drop in the cocky population.

As they say, if cockies were any tougher, they'd rust, but they are definitely clowns.

This one was feeding on seeds, but got into an embarrassing position when the two stalks it was hanging onto, gave way under its weight, making it "do the splits".

We laughed, and it rewarded us with a dirty look and a scream: the thing our neighbour objected to most was their raucous screeching.

From my study window, I can see across a broad valley, about 3 km across, and sometimes, there can be a flock of 60 or so, racing back and forth, screaming. Take it from me: the sounds carry.

Still, cockatoos are part of the bush, and they even roost there: I caught this one popping out of its hollow tree one day, and this pic will probably go into the new book that I signed off on yesterday, as an example of how animals use resources.

One last picture, though, to illustrate a piece of vernacular which the British claim as their own, though I think it sounds more Australian. That is "as sick as a parrot", and to illustrate this, here is a cockatoo that was carrying "beak and feather disease".

This, I am told is a virus disease, first reported from Australia in the 19th century. This bird was a member of a flock, which means there was a risk of transmission, but I have seen no other cases in the area.

Anyhow, if you want to know what "sick as a parrot" looks like, this will show you.

Cockroaches, by the way, were a matter of shame:

And you should never own to a mosquito. I once unfortunately stated to a Queensland gentleman that my coat had been bitten by cockroaches at his brother’s house, which I had just left. ‘You must have brought them with you then,’ was the fraternal defence immediately set up. I was compelled at once to antedate the cockroaches to my previous resting-place, owned by a friend, not by a brother. ‘It is possible,’ said the squatter, ‘but I think you must have had them with you longer than that.’ I acquiesced in silence, and said no more about my coat till I could get it mended elsewhere.

        — Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand, London: 1873, 67.

But it seems we had cockroaches quite early, going on this:

To repel the Cock-roach. — Take a small quantity of white arsenic finely pulverised, strew it on crumbs of bread, and lay it near their haunts; a few nights will suffice.
     Launceston Advertiser, 20 December 1830, 4,
And even earlier, in 1820, Lt. (later Admiral) King tried to deal with pests in the cutter he was using to map Australia's coasts:
The cutter was careened at a place appointed for the purpose on the east side of Sydney Cove; and whilst undergoing her repair the crew lived on board a hulk hired for the occasion. This offered so favourable an opportunity for destroying the rats and cockroaches with which she was completely overrun, a measure that, from the experience of our last voyage, was considered absolutely necessary for our comfort as well as for our personal safety, that, as soon as the operation of coppering and caulking was finished, she was secured alongside of the hulk, and there immersed in the water for several days, by which process we hoped effectually to destroy them.

    Upon the vessel being raised and the water pumped out, I was rejoiced to find that the measure appeared to have had the desired effect; but, before we left Port Jackson, she was again infested by rats, and we had not been long at sea before the cockroaches also made their appearance in great numbers. In sinking the cutter it seemed, in respect to the insects, that we had only succeeded in destroying the living stock, and that the eggs, which were plentifully deposited in the recesses and cracks of the timbers and sides, proved so impervious to the sea-water, that no sooner had we reached the warmer climate, than they were hatched, and the vessel was quickly repossessed by them; but it was many months before we were so annoyed by their numbers as had been the case during the last voyage.

    — Lt. P. P. King, Narrative of a Survey of the intertropical and western coasts of Australia.

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