The aviary at Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, where many ‘acclimatised’ birds were exhibited before being released into the wild (detail), c1865. State Library of Victoria, H10732

Mynas Matter: Towards a Cultural History of ‘Invasive’ Species in Australia

History PhD candidate Simon Farley is investigating settler Australian attitudes towards non-native wildlife from the 1820s to the present. In this article, they reflect on the historical entanglement of ‘invasive’ species with the politics of immigration and indigeneity.

How is a myna like Pauline Hanson? No, it’s not a riddle. It is a question a correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald attempted to answer in October 1996, not long after Hanson’s infamous maiden speech to Parliament. He wrote:

If we are to compare Hanson with a bird, we need look no further than the Indian mynah [sic]. Introduced, aggressive, intolerant to native birds, noisy, self-satisfied and a blight on the country. It is also, unfortunately, increasing in numbers and spreading to new areas. This seems to sum up Hanson and her policies well.

‘Gotcha!’ we might say upon reading this. ‘Take that!’ This is just how Hanson and her abhorrent ideas ought to be treated – with utter contempt, just as we treat the myna.

Common Myna, 2015. Photographer: Koshy Koshy via Wikimedia Commons

But let’s pause a moment before we feel too smug. Was this not precisely the sort of thing Hanson and her ilk were saying about Asian immigrants? The myna here is characterised as an enemy to ‘native’ birds, ‘aggressive’ and ‘noisy’, something that doesn’t really belong in Australia, a creature whose presence here is detrimental to the nation and yet whose influence is expanding. Ironically, in trying to criticise a xenophobe, the writer of this letter revealed that he was thinking in a deeply xenophobic way.

Indeed, this letter inadvertently suggests why Hanson was able to gain political purchase in the first place. The fear that pushy, unpleasant foreigners were going to come here, multiply, and ultimately uproot settler Australians is thoroughly baked into our culture – so much so that it has even affected the way we think about birds like the myna.

Perhaps this is a bold claim, but it’s one I’m working hard to test and substantiate in my PhD thesis. I’m investigating settler (that is to say, non-Indigenous) Australians’ perceptions of non-native wildlife and how these have changed from the 1820s up to the twenty-first century. After all, the invasive species that settler Australians revile today – certainly including mynas, but also cane toads, rabbits, foxes, deer, and many more – were introduced here in the first place by settler Australians. Evidently, a major cultural shift in the way we see such animals has occurred since then.

It would be easy – too easy – to put this shift down to an improved scientific understanding of ecology. Many would argue that the people who introduced these animals in the nineteenth century could not have known what damage they would do, but now – thank Darwin! – we know better. However, my research suggests that the story is a lot more complicated than that.

To begin with, the people involved in introducing these species to Australia were often themselves scientists. ‘Acclimatisation’ – the study and practice of establishing animals and plants in places to which they were not native – was cutting-edge science in the mid-nineteenth century. Ferdinand Mueller, a renowned botanist and long-time director of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, and Frederick McCoy, the first lecturer in ‘natural science’ at the University of Melbourne, were important founding members of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria (ASV). These men were among the very few professional scientists working in the Australian colonies at the time and, accordingly, their opinions were often deemed as good as fact.

Even so, the justifications acclimatisers gave for introducing organisms were inextricable from settler colonial ideology. The ASV introduced an array of European birds, including skylarks, blackbirds and thrushes, with the express goals of making Victoria more ‘civilised’ and maintaining cultural links with Britain. Even more apparently ‘economic’ ventures in acclimatisation – such as attempting to establish an Australian alpaca industry – were undertaken in the name of supporting an essentially British style of agriculture and, by extension, an essentially British way of life in the colonies. Such efforts backfired when ‘acclimatised’ species such as the hare and the sparrow became agricultural pests.

But, even as the ‘grey blanket’ of rabbits swept across Australian farmlands, even as starlings plucked orchards bare of fruit, settler Australians continued to express appreciation of various non-native wild animals. Although the ASV pivoted to zookeeping in the early 1870s, establishing what is now Melbourne Zoo, acclimatisation societies continued to be founded across Australia as late as the 1930s. Moreover, many native animals were killed in vast numbers during this period, either for the fur trade (like koalas and possums) or because they were considered pests (like emus and thylacines). Hard distinctions between native and non-native species were yet to be drawn.

Photograph of a shooting party in Seymour, Victoria, posing with rabbit and fox skins, 1931. Photographer unknown. Museums Victoria, MM 2920

The final attempts at acclimatisation in the inter-war period were strongly opposed by scientists and nature writers, who were developing a stronger stance on which species did and did not belong in Australia. This corresponds with demographic shifts. In the mid-nineteenth century, settler Australians identified strongly with introduced animals, thinking of them as colonists or assisted migrants much like themselves. By the 1930s, most Australians were born here, and the vast majority of them – thanks in part to the White Australia Policy – saw themselves as culturally and ethnically British. Immigrants were no longer ‘like us’ – they were Others, objects of fear, causes of disruption. Accordingly, many settler Australians had come to identify more closely with native species. Settlers at this point felt like they had fully and rightfully taken the continent from its Indigenous peoples; at the same time – perhaps even as an indirect result of this feeling – they were terrified that someone else was going to come along and do the same thing to them. These anxieties were reflected in and naturalised by the work of scientists as the twentieth century wore on.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that ‘invasion ecology’ became established as a discrete discipline, one that enshrined the strict dichotomy of native (good) and non-native (bad) as scientific fact. Yet many from both within and without this discipline have criticised it as prone to sensationalism and inappropriately normative, too invested in prescribing how ecosystems ought to be rather than studying them as they are. Invasion ecology is now a global phenomenon, but many of its enthusiastic early adopters hailed from the USA, Aotearoa, South Africa and Australia – not coincidentally, all settler colonies. By the late 1990s, it was a major force in government policy and land management practice and remains so today.

Beyond the academy, the 1980s and 1990s saw a noticeable shift in the way many Australians talked about what were now called ‘invasive’ species. Non-native wildlife were increasingly described in abject terms, portrayed as sinister, uncanny, ugly and/or filthy. People called for their extermination in luridly paranoid and violent tones, uncomfortably close to the way contemporary far-right extremists spoke about migrants from Asia.

But, at the same time, settler Australians could no longer be certain about where their ecological loyalties should lie. In the decades since the Second World War, Indigenous activism and official multiculturalism had unsettled many of the assumptions about who did and did not belong in Australia. Were ‘native’ species best associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or with the nth-generation white settlers who, like Pauline Hanson, saw themselves as having an equally valid claim to indigeneity? Likewise, were invasive species best represented as – best vilified as – nineteenth-century British colonisers or as twentieth-century Asian immigrants?

This tangled semiotic mess is no closer to being tidied up today. The consequences are not trivial. Immense amounts of time and resources are spent on studying and ‘controlling’ (which usually means killing) non-native species in Australia, for both ecological and economic reasons. But research into and management of non-native species are seldom undertaken with this complex and contested history in mind; it is just easier to unthinkingly follow the formula that says native species are always good and non-native species are always bad. But what if this formula doesn’t have very much to do with ecology or economics or anything rational at all? What if a lot of what we do and say and know about ‘invasive’ species can be traced back to deep-seated cultural anxieties about civilisation and colonialism, about indigeneity and immigration?


Aviary at Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, where many ‘acclimatised’ birds were exhibited before being released into the wild, c1865. Photographer unknown. State Library of Victoria, H10732

Again, these are perhaps impertinent questions for a humble historian to ask. But they are questions that cut right to the heart of Australian identity; they are questions that require us to think about our settler colonial past and present in new ways; furthermore, they are questions that science alone is ill-equipped to answer. In a time of ecological crisis and racial injustice, such questions are worth asking.

In 2021, Simon Farley was awarded the Wyselaskie Scholarship for History and the Dr Rodney Lloyd Benjamin OAM History Prize. Simon is currently secretary of the History Postgraduate Association.

Feature image: The aviary at Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, where many ‘acclimatised’ birds were exhibited before being released into the wild (detail), c1865. State Library of Victoria, H10732