The success of John 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. 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 Gould in Australia

While doing field work for The Birds of Australia, John and Elizabeth Gould were separated for long periods. A letter from Gould to his wife while on a collecting expedition in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) describes some of the delight he took in hunting down new specimens for his collection.

“I have this day killed a rather extraordinary bird, and one that you will recollect, at least there is every probability of its being the same; you will remember the large Snow White Petrel (a variety of the black species) which followed us nearly all the way from the Cape to Tasman’s Head and which I was so desirous of procuring without effecting my purpose. I have also killed some beautiful albatrosses, petrels, ducks etc. and four nests with full compliment of eggs of the Black Oystercatcher, small and large gulls, a Teal etc. besides a nest with young of the Emu Wren and other minor things. Letter from John Gould to Elizabeth Gould, 20 December 1838

A diary entry by Gould’s travelling companion Lady Jane Franklin from the same expedition describes Gould’s method of preserving eggs in the field:

On this occasion he [Gould] did not succeed in finding any penguin’s eggs, but came back with a live penguin, and with the eggs of various gulls. Some of these were too hard to be blown, in which case he cut with the point of a penknife or small knife adapted for the purpose, an oval shaped piece of the shell out of the side, emptied the egg, and replaced the shell. Diary of Lady Jane Franklin, 12 December 1838

However, Gould’s expeditions were not without hardship. A letter sent to Elizabeth on 20 January 1839 describes a harrowing experience in which Gould witnessed a man accidentally shoot himself in the chest on Isabella Island:

We arrived here yesterday from Flinders at which place I was especially gratified to strengthen my acquaintance with the Natives and other things, and I should have left the Island with a light heart and proceeded to Kings had [not] a fatal accident happened to one of the men who shot himself dead by uncautiously pulling the gun from the boat with the muzzle towards his chest, the cock of the gun caught the seat of the boat and all was over with the poor fellow in half a minute. I cannot tell you my dear Eliza how great a shock I sustained. I have scarcely been myself since and I almost hate the sight of a gun. I have given up all idea now of going to Kings and shall make my way across the Island as quickly as I can making a call or two on the way. The inquest will be held in the morning. The man had every caution given him not a minute before to be careful with the gun, but his time was come as his poor shipmates say and with that they console themselves. Letter from John Gould to Elizabeth Gould, 20 January 1839

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 John Gilbert in 1844

Naming things that have already been named is a form of intellectual colonisation. For a collector like Gould, there was imperial glory in naming a new species that provided international recognition. Accordingly, Gould was a prolific taxonomist: it is estimated that he was the first European to describe between 300 and 328 species of Australian birds and 45 mammal species.

Although Gould was an active participant in colonial science, he was nevertheless unusual compared to many of his contemporaries as he actively sought out the Indigenous names of the specimens he collected. He realised the importance of developing relationships with Aboriginal people on his expeditions as they were a key part of the success of his field work. Knowing the Aboriginal names for birds and mammals meant Gould could specify what he wanted collected.

Indigenous Bird Names of the Hunter Region of New South Wales as collected by Gould
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