Dreaming stories: ‘Mar the Cockatoo’


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DREAMING STORIES: ‘Mar the Cockatoo’

    • This is a Dreaming story of the Boandik people of the South East of South Australia

    • Please note that Mar is a Major Mitchell cockatoo NOT a sulphur crested cockatoo as is incorrectly stated in some sources

    • Comprehensive unit of work based on ‘Mar the Cockatoo’ located on CESA Online at http://online.cesanet.adl.catholic.edu.au/docushare/dsweb/View/Collection-2709. This unit of work suggests a range of possible activities which could be used/adapted across a number of year levels

    • For all necessary background information refer to ‘Mar the Cockatoo: A Boandik Dreaming Story’ for Years R-3, a DETE Publication

  • Collect/Download photographs or images of the South East region e.g. around Mt Gambier and Pt MacDonnell, yuccas, Blue Lake…

  • Highlight the diversity of environments – coastal scrub, woodland area, Blue Lake (extinct volcano)

  • Wildlife – possums, kookaburras, scarlet robins, cockatoos, orange-bellied parrots

  • Possums – lived in river red gum trees (scratch marks on trunks), smoked out, hunted for meat and skins

  • Artefacts – spears, clubs, shelters

  • Invite an Aboriginal person to tell the story to the students (contact Indigenous Ed. Team)

  • Tell the story of ‘Mar the Cockatoo’ and discuss the life lessons and values taught through the telling of this story (‘The Dreaming’ DVD Kit, P26)

  • Mar established his own area (campsite). How did the Boandik people establish their areas? (used natural features in the landscape to establish boundaries)

  • Discuss the importance of fire – fire making, uses and dangers

  • Select a bird to study e.g. Major Mitchell cockatoo, kookaburra, scarlet robin, orange-bellied parrot and investigate life cycles, eggs, behaviour, nests, food, care for their young and adaptation to their environment

  • Study the biology of the bird – label the main body parts on a diagram (photocopied or hand drawn)

  • Read some other Aboriginal stories about birds e.g. ‘How the birds got their colours’ and ‘Dunbi the Owl’ by Pamela Lofts

  • Read ‘How Crows Became Black’ by May O’Brien and ‘Cocky, the Crow and Hawk’ edited by Christine Nicholls

  • Useful resource: ‘Storytelling’ by Pauline McLeod (Scholastic)

  • Compare the elements of different Dreaming stories – the settings, characters, emotions displayed, rules taught and lessons learnt

  • Compare the rules within these communities with rules in other settings e.g. own family / class / school rules

  • Discuss/compare the responsibilities the children have within their own families

  • Learn to sing the ‘Mar (the Cockatoo)’ song from ‘Songs for Aboriginal Studies and Reconciliation’ by Buck McKenzie

Aboriginal Dreaming stories, birds and the local environment’ by Trefor Barnes

Children learn about birds' habitats through real observations, through use of models, as well as DVDs and books. Storytelling expands their appreciation and this is reinforced through observation, retelling, song, mime, plays, building craft objects, writing and publishing.

“Mapping helps children to learn that different Aboriginal peoples lived in different environments and that the diversity of birds, in particular, is sometimes the same and sometimes different according to the environments. They learn too that Aboriginal peoples passed on knowledge of creatures in their environments through Dreaming stories.

“Children could individually or in a small group choose a bird to care for, as Aboriginal people care for their particular 'friend' or 'totem'. Children could learn about the habitat of their chosen bird and act in ways to care for it through planting particular food or shelter bushes or trees and educating others about the bird's needs through talking, drawing, miming, writing and acting.

“Children can learn from Aboriginal people about how their lives are both the same as and different from that of their ancestors.” Trefor Barnes


Preliminary work needs to be done on the concept of maps. A sand pit can be used to create hills, creeks and roads to show children a scale version.

Organise large but simple maps to show children links between stories and country. This helps show children how Dreaming stories map / tell / sing the land and how Aboriginal people do not live in isolation from neighbouring groups.

Each time a story is introduced, use small cardboard indicators and adhesive, to mark the area on a map to show how stories 'tell the land'.


Access and display a variety of resources relevant to the Dreaming stories e.g. posters or photographs showing local Aboriginal people, past and present, nature pictures, websites, books and DVDs which give valued information about environmental features and creatures such as birds, fish, reptiles, bush foods and plants.


Go for a nature walk near scrub, in school grounds if possible. Ask children 'What do you think this is?', 'What sound is that?', 'Could we eat this?'

Sit quietly and try to identify bird sounds and birds in general, encouraging children to use all their senses to learn as much as possible so that afterwards they can practise movements, draw and paint what they have observed.

Photograph or video birds in the school grounds if possible.


Use published photographs or drawings of birds to use as a base for children's drawings. Model a drawing by using oval, circle, triangle or other easy-to-recognise shapes as building blocks. Alternatively, use an overhead projector or grid method to make life-size drawings.

Research some Ngarrindjeri or other Aboriginal names for birds and plants and ask children to describe their different habits and habitats.

Compose a song about a bird's appearance and behaviour, and perform the song at assembly.

Create a picture book or a class 'big book' about a bird which has been observed, and share with a buddy.


Support may be available through information from the South Australian Museum, Gould League, Arbury Park Outdoor School, Bird Care and Conservation Society (08 8232 0560) or Conservation Council of South Australia (08 8223 5155).

Fish posters are available from Gould League or Murray Darling Basin Commission, ph: 02 6279 0141, fax: 02 6248 8053.

Taken from http://www.aboriginaleducation.sa.edu.au/files/links/Dreaming_stories_and_bird.pdf

How Fire was Stolen from the Red-Crested Cockatoo

This is an account of the Mar the Cockatoo story recorded by William Jenkyn Thomas around 1923.

Ages ago -- in the dream-time -- many of the beautiful birds and timid animals now living in the bush were men. One day, towards sunset, a tribe of blacks were returning from the hunt, when they met a very old man carrying a long spear and an empty "dilly" bag. When he approached them he placed the spear in the ground as a token of peace, and said:

"I have travelled far, my brothers, and many moons have gone since I left the hunting ground of my people. I have journeyed to the land where the voice of the great waters is like rolling thunder. I have passed beyond the mountains that are hidden in grey mist to the great red plains beyond, where there is neither bird nor beast, and the face of the sun is for ever hidden in a dark cloud. I have journeyed without resting to the land that lies beyond the dawn, and many strange adventures have I known. Now I am old, and my people are scattered like dead leaves before the wind, and, before I seek them, I would rest with you a while. In return for your kindness, I will tell you the secret of the fire of the sun. He who is brave among you may then bring it to your tribe."

The headmen of the tribe decided to take the old man with them to their camping ground. When they arrived the evening meal was quickly prepared, and the choicest morsels were given to the weary traveller. The blacks then formed a circle around the old man, and eagerly awaited his story. At this time fire was unknown in the land. When the blacks enjoyed the warmth of the sun, they often wondered how they could take the fire from the sky in order to warm them when the snow fell like a great white mantle, and the cold wind howled eerily and chilled them to the bone. They did not know how to cook their food or harden their spear heads by fire, but for warmth alone they desired it. The old man crouched on his haunches, wrapped his possum skin rug around him, peered into the darkness of the bush as though he suspected a hidden enemy, and, having made himself comfortable, began to tell of his adventurous journey.

“Far to the east, beyond the mountains that hide the sun, I journeyed," he said. "The water no longer ran in the creeks, and the waterholes were dry. Many animals were dead in the bed of the river, to which they had come for water, and died from thirst. The shadow of death was across the land, and I hurried on without resting, lest it should fall across my path. One day, when my tongue was big in my mouth, and my legs were as weak as those of a child, I saw in the distance a gleaming waterhole. I ran towards it, but fell, many times before reaching it, so great was my weakness. At last I reached it, but the blackness of night fell upon me, and I slept, although the sun was high in the sky.

“When I awoke I heard a loud noise in my ears like the buzzing of many flies, and my legs would not support me. I dragged myself to the waterhole, and, bending my head low to drink, I touched the hot, dry sand with my mouth. That which I thought was water was a gleaming bed of sand. An evil spirit possessed me, and I dug deep into the sand until my hands were torn and bleeding. The sand became firmer, and at last a trickle of water appeared. It gradually increased until there was sufficient for me to drink. I rested there for a day, and then went on my way refreshed.

“After many days, I came to a land where grew many high trees. One morning, before the sun had climbed the mountains, I saw its fire gleaming through the trees. Being surprised at the sight, I cautiously drew nearer, and then I saw Mar-the Cockatoo-take the fire from under his crest and light his way with it. In my hurry I stood on a dry stick, and its crackling drew the cockatoo's attention to me. He threw a spear at me, and I was forced to flee. After many weary days and nights, I arrived at the camping ground of my people, but they were no longer there. Then I followed in their tracks until I met you.

“If there is one among your tribe who is brave enough to face the dangers of my long and weary journey, and take the fire from Mar the cockatoo, then his name shall be a welcome word on all men's tongues until the end of time."

When they heard this story, the tribe were greatly excited. They all spoke together, and few were heard. At last they agreed to invite the cockatoo to a great corroboree, and, while he was enjoying himself, to steal the fire.

The day arrived for the great feast. There was dancing and singing, and mock fighting. Then they offered Mar a choice piece of kangaroo flesh to eat, but he refused it.

He was then offered the kangaroo skin, which he accepted and took away with him to his camp. The f east was over, and still they did not have the fire.

Prite, who was a very little fellow, decided to follow the cockatoo to his camp. He followed Mar over the mountains until he was very weary, and, just as he was about to turn back, he saw the cockatoo take the fire from under his crest feathers. He then returned to the camp and told the members of the tribe that the old man's story was true. The absorbing question was discussed late into the night, and at length it was agreed that Tatkanna, the Robin, should make the journey again, and endeavour to steal the coveted fire.

Early the next morning he set out on his long journey, and, after travelling for some time, he reached the camp of the cockatoo. He arrived just in time to see Mar take the fire from his crest and light a fire stick. With this stick he singed off the hair of the kangaroo skin which the tribe had given him.

Tatkanna was so eager to steal the fire that he approached too close, and scorched his breast feathers-hence his name Robin Redbreast. When Tatkanna's feathers were scorched he was very frightened, but, as the cockatoo had seen him, he decided to act boldly. Running to the fire, he seized a fire stick and made off. In his hurry he set fire to the dry grass around him, and in a short time the whole bush was ablaze. The fire roared like the sound of flood waters in the mountains. Birds and animals raced before it in their efforts to gain the shelter of the green trees. But it swept all before it, and left a smoking black waste behind. When a tall tree fell, a shower of golden sparks flew high in the air, and the red reflection of the flames in the sky was like the rising of the sun.

When the cockatoo discovered that the fire was stolen, and beyond his control for all time, he was very angry. Taking his nulla-nullas, he went in search of Tatkanna to kill him. When Mar arrived at the camping ground of the tribe, Tatkanna, who was only a little fellow, was very frightened, and begged his friend Quartang, the Kookaburra, to take up his quarrel. Quartang agreed to do so, but he had not been fighting many minutes when he was beaten, and forced to fly into the trees, where he has remained ever since.

Mar, the cockatoo, returned to his camp disconsolate. The tribe was very pleased with the robin for his bravery. When you see a red-crested cockatoo, you will remember how fire was stolen from him. He still has a beautiful red crest, and is known as Leadbeater's cockatoo (also known as the Major Mitchell cockatoo). The robin redbreast also retains his scorched feathers in remembrance of his great feat.

Some Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines’ by William Jenkyn Thomas, 1923 - now in the public domain.


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