Berigora: a word that clawed on — from where?

The challenge

Brown falcon drawing
Brown falcon  © J.N. Davies from Birdata

‘Australia’s Most Widespread’ bird, according to Birdata’s featured bird last week, is the Brown Falcon, Falco berigora. A few months ago, a ‘complete guide to the origin of Australian bird names’ (that is, English and Linnæan names), was published, and in it Fraser and Gray (2013:80) summarised the published information on this species name:

berigora [is] stated in many places to be the name for the bird in an indigenous language, though nobody appears willing to nominate a particular language. The original namers, Vigors and Horsfield (1827), simply said: ‘The native name of this bird, which we have adopted as its specific name, is Berigora’. Gould (1848) mentioned ‘Aborigines of New South Wales’ against the word, and Morris (1898), in his Dictionary of Austral English, claimed it is made up of beri, claw, and gora, long. The word does not appear in a glossary of the languages spoken by indigenous people of the Sydney region as the time of early white settlement (Troy 1994), though many other bird names do, and the bird was certainly to be found there. Are the claws longer than those of other falcons? Perhaps not, and indeed, the toes, according to Debus (2012:131), are shorter.

Actually Falco berigora Vigors and Horsfield 1827:184-5 is one of only three birds whose scientific (Linnæan) name draws on a word of an Australian language.1 The word berigora has managed to survive in this ornithological niche, and is now guaranteed as much as longevity as science can offer. But can we give due credit to the language which provided it?

A swoop at it

The closest match I have been able to find in vocabularies of Australian languages is biyaagaarr ‘Brown falcon’ in the Yuwaalayaay and Yuwaalaraay pair of languages (Ash et al 2003:42), the same word (as beeargah ‘hawk’) for a character in legends taken down by Catherine (Katie) Langloh Parker (later Stow) in the late 19th century (Parker 1896:64 etc). The tales of Beeargah include that “his vigilance was unceasing” (Parker 1896:28), he was a cousin of Mullyan, the eagle hawk (p.32) and in other tales Beeargah was a wife of Goomblegubbon the bustard and mother of Ouyan the curlew, pp.65,70) (Note that Parker spelled the language name Euahlayi which modern orthography spells Yuwaalayaay.)

Applying to biyaagaarr (beeargah) the intervocalic y ~ r sound correspondence established by Austin (1997:27), *biraagaarr would be the expected form in the most closely related language Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi), or indeed in other languages of the Central NSW subgroup. While I have found no independent record of *biraagaarr, the correspondence allows us to identify the value of the two r in berigora (=biraagaarr(a)): the first is a glide like English r, and the second an apical flap or trill (like Scottish r) often written as rr in modern orthographies.

We can also look to the evidence from where the word berigora was recorded. The type specimen was collected by George Caley (Webb 1995:140) and is kept at the UK Natural History Museum’s Sub-department of Ornithology, Tring, Hertfordshire (registration no. 1863.7.7.5a) with the location recorded simply as ‘New Holland (New South Wales)’. The type description has this additional note:

The native name of this bird, which we have adopted as its specific name, is Berigora. It is called by the settlers Orange-speckled Hawk. Mr. Caley informs us, that the orange marks in the plumage of this species are considerably stronger in recent specimens than in those of the Society’s collection, which are much faded. (Vigors and Horsfield 1827:185)

It is highly likely that Caley provided the word along with the specimen, although it is not among the score of bird names in ‘Caley’s Bird Notes’ (Caley and Currey 1966:212-220).

map of Sydney region languages
Sydney region languages

Caley lived at Parramatta in the decade 1800–10, and though he explored the Sydney basin he didn’t make it west of the Great Dividing Range, and while he did go to Newcastle (by ship) and collected around there, those specimens are labelled Hunter River (Ian Fraser p.c.). So Caley most likely learnt the word berigora in the Sydney region, and most likely through his long-time guide, Moowattin. Of the twenty or so bird words Caley recorded, almost half can be matched with another record of the Sydney Language, and the remainder of Caley’s bird words are for species for which there is no other recorded word in the region.

As Fraser and Gray (2013:80) say, there is no word meaning ‘Brown falcon’ (or similar) otherwise recorded in the Sydney Language or in vocabularies of neighbouring languages: Darkinyung, Gandangarra, Dharawal and South Coast Languages (Besold 2013), and so on. Nor is a similar form recorded in these languages, not with a meaning that can be plausibly matched with a kind of bird, and so there is no regional corroboration of Caley’s Berigora: all we have is Yuwaalayaay biyaagaarr from distant inland NSW. Hence I conclude that biraagaarra was a word used around Sydney or its hinterland for the Brown falcon, and that Caley’s note was the only primary record made of the word.

That Berigora was noted with a final vowel is to be expected, as no recorded words of the Sydney Language end in rr (the apical flap or trill), nor for that matter in r (the glide) (Steele 2005:152-3). The possibility can be discounted that the final vowel of berigora was added by the taxonomists as a Latin inflexion, not only because they say Berigora was the ‘native name’, but also because the genus Falco is masculine with which a feminine form berigora would clash; berigora was meant as a noun in apposition.

Up some gum trees

Caley’s main interest was botany, and he recorded some similar gum tree names, one with the same spelling as the ‘Brown falcon’ word:

Baril’gora, E. hemiphloia (now E. moluccana Roxb.), the common box.
Berig’ora, E. hemiphloia, Berigora Box, this species grows on the tops of high hills such as Prospect, the Devil’s Back and those at the Cow Pastures. Most probably the colonists confound it with the common one.
[and other Eucalypts] Bargar’gro, Burrar’gro, Berryer’gro … (Caley and Currey 1966:224 as reprinted by Webb 1995:175)

Another Caley spelling for Berigora Box is Berijora (Caley and Currey 1966:224), so, following Jeremy Steele, its form is indicated to be something like baridyara (not barigara), and if so then the gum tree word is irrelevant to the Brown falcon word.

Etymology of berigora

Morris’ (1898) analysis of berigora as composed of beri ‘claw’, and gora ‘long’ (language unspecified) was probably speculative. Words matching beri occur in 19th century Nyungar wordlists (bere’, beree ‘nails’, Bindon and Chadwick 1992) (cf. pCNSW *yulu ‘fingernail’). And gora matches Gamilaraay gurarr, Wangaaybuwan gurraarr, pCNSW *gurarr ‘long’ (Austin 1997:28). (Or possibly Morris’ guess was built on a swapped version of the two Wiradjuri words, published in Günther (1892:72,90) as Bári ‘long, tall’, and Gurung ‘the claw of animals, as of the lobster’.) However, the Brown falcon is not distinguished by long claws, as Fraser and Gray (2013:80) point out.

Ash et al (2003, 42) report that biyaagaarr is onomatopœic: ‘Said to come from the bird’s cackling call.’ Maybe so, though in other parts of Australia there are widespread words like girrgurda (Wajarri), karrkany (Marra, Ritharrngu, Gumatj), *kirrki (proto-Nyulnyulan), kirrkirlanji ~ kirrkirlardi (Warlpiri), with initial velar stop (as well as medially), which fit better with my impression from recordings of its call. This could be part of the motivation for the variant biyaagaarrgaarr (Ash et al 2003:42).

Epilogue: further survival

A racehorse called Berigora, active in the 1980s, would have spread the word for some. And then berigora took on extra life in a further two scientific (Linnæan) names:

  • Tendeiro (1988:97-8) named Colpocephalum berigorae, a chewing lice parasitic on Falco berigora; hence the species name is the Latin Genitive of berigora (now parsed as a feminine noun).
  • The prolific entomologist Günther Theischinger (1994:15) named Molophilus berigora, a kind of fly, for the reason that ‘Berigora is an Australian Aboriginal word for “orange-speckled hawk”; it refers to the colouration’. The containing Limoniidae ‘are a very large family with nearly 10500 described species in 133 genera’, and over a thousand new species of Diptera (flies) are being described (and named) each year so the entomologists are keen for fresh words to use; Theischinger appears to have mined old vocabularies as one source, and, for Berigora, most likely Morris’ (1898) Austral English.


I am grateful to Ian Fraser for ornithological assistance. The Australian National Dictionary Centre staff kindly checked the Centre’s files. I have made appreciative use of Jeremy Steele’s Bayala Australian Languages databases, and of the February 2013 version of the Pama-Nyungan etymological database funded by NSF grant 844550 ‘Pama-Nyungan and Australian Prehistory’ awarded to Claire Bowern. I have also used online databases Zoonomen Zoological Nomenclature Resource, the Catalogue of Life Catalogue of Life, and the Australian Faunal Directory.


Ash, A, Giacon, J, & Lissarrague, A 2003, Gamilaraay, Yuwaalaraay & Yuwaalayaay dictionary, IAD Press, Alice Springs.

Austin, P 1997, ‘Proto Central New South Wales phonology’, in D Tryon & M Walsh (eds.), Boundary Rider: Essays in honour of Geoffrey O’Grady, Pacific Linguistics, Canberra, C-136, pp. 21–49.

Besold, J 2013, ‘Language recovery of the New South Wales South Coast Aboriginal languages’, Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, Canberra, URL

Bindon, P & Chadwick, R (eds.) 1992, A Nyoongar wordlist from the south west of Western Australia, Anthropology Dept., Western Australian Museum.

Caley, G & Currey, JE 1966, Reflections on the colony of New South Wales, Lansdowne, Melbourne.

Debus, SJ 2012, Birds of Prey of Australia: A Field Guide, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, URL

Fraser, I & Gray, J 2013, Australian bird names : a complete guide, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Vic. URL

Gould, J 1848, The Birds of Australia, vol. 1–7, John Gould, London.

Günther, JW 1892, Vocabulary of the Aboriginal dialect called Wirradhuri spoken in the Wellington District, etc., etc. of New Holland, Charles Potter, Govt Printer, Sydney, chap. Appendix D, pp. 56–120, An Australian language, ed. by James Fraser, URL

Latham, J 1801, Supplement II to the General synopsis of birds, Leigh, Sotheby, & Son, York Street, Covent Garden, London, URL,

Lesson, R 1837, Histoire naturelle, in vol. 2 of Journal de la navigation autour du globe de la frégate la Thétis et de la corvette l’Espérance pendant les années 1824, 1825 et 1826, Arthus Bertrand, Paris URL

Morris, EE 1898, Austral English: a dictionary of Australasian words, phrases and usages, Cambridge University Press, 2011 edn., URL

Parker, KL 1896, Australian legendary tales: folklore of the Noongahburrahs as told to the picaninnies, D. Nutt, London, URL,

Steele, JM 2005, ‘The Aboriginal language of Sydney: a partial reconstruction of the indigenous language of Sydney based on the notebooks of William Dawes of 1790-91, informed by other records of the Sydney and surrounding languages to c.1905’, Macquarie University ResearchOnline, Macquarie University, North Ryde, URL

Tendeiro, J 1988, ‘Études sur les Colpocephalum (Mallophaga, Menoponidae) parasites des Falconiformes I. Groupe zerafae Price & Beer’, Bonner Zoologische Beiträge 39.2-3, 77–102 [97], URL\%27s/1988/Tendeiro1988.pdf.

Theischinger, G 1994, ‘The Limoniinae (Diptera: Tipulidae) of Australia. IV. New and insufficiently known species of Gynoplistia Macquart and Molophilus Curtis (Diptera: Tipulidae: Limoniinae) from Australia.’, Stapfia 36,1–36 [15], URL

Troy, J 1994, ‘The Sydney Language’, in N Thieberger & W McGregor (eds.), Macquarie Aboriginal words: a dictionary of words from Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, Macquarie Library, North Ryde, pp. 61–78.

Vigors, NA & Horsfield, T 1827, ‘IX. A description of the Australian birds in the collection of the Linnean Society; with an attempt at arranging them according to their natural affinities’, Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 15.1, 170–331, URL

Webb, JB 1995, George Caley : nineteenth century naturalist : a biography, Surrey Beattey, Chipping Norton, NSW.


  1. The other two are Ninox boobook, Latham 1801:64, Southern Boobook owl, and Petroica (Muscicapa) boodang Lesson 1837:322, Scarlet Robin, each using the name that is well attested in the Sydney Language.

2 thoughts on “Berigora: a word that clawed on — from where?”

  1. To the Aboriginal name ‘biyaagaarr’. While researching the Australian endemic Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos), I found the following note, handwritten by John Gilbert: ‘Falco hypoleucos. Boor”=ga. Aborigines of Moore’s river, in the interior.’

    The birds of Western Australia [ms, presumably 1842]. In ‘Gilbert, John (Australia) 8 ms booklets, c.1841–45.’ In ‘John Gould (1804–81). Papers and correspondence, Z MSS GOU A and B [microform]: [M2888–2902]. Mfm M2902, No. 7’ [a revision of ‘No. 6’]. Australian Joint Copying Project, Canberra.

    ‘Boor”=ga’ does not seem to sound all that different from ‘biyaagaarr’.

    Gilbert had obtained 2 specimens of Grey Falcon between 1839 and 1842, both from near Perth WA. The 1842 specimens was collected by Gilbert himself, somewhere along the Moore River, about 140 km north of Perth WA.
    Refer to my paper:
    Schoenjahn, J. 2010. The type and other early specimens of Grey Falcon Falco hypoleucos. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 130: 102–115.

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