Memorising birds

White-winged chough. Photo: Damian Kelly.

I have now memorised the 408 birds of my state, Victoria, in taxonomic order. That means I can name each of the 82 scientific family names and all the birds in that family – all from memory. I am using a combination of methods used by indigenous cultures starting with encoding the families onto my memory board, an adaptation of the African lukasa.

I am then using stories and puns and weird images to encode the members of the families.

My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand
A whistling kite (family Accipitridae) being chased by an Australasian raven (Corvidae). Photo: Damian Kelly.

Now that the structure is in place and I know all the birds, I am adding more information, much as indigenous cultures do as they move to higher levels of initiation. I’m adding memory aids to identification, distribution and other characteristics. I will soon be a walking field guide with a knowledge base which is becoming constantly more comprehensive.

A year ago, I would have sworn I couldn’t do this. Now it is fun and I am convinced I can memorise anything which can be structured in some way.

This is just one of the experiments in my 40 memory experiments.




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Author: lynne

I am an Honorary Researcher at LaTrobe University. I am the author of 19 books, the most recent being 'Spiders: learning to love them' (Allen & Unwin), 'Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies' (Cambridge University Press, 'The Memory Code' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US and Atlantic Books, UK), 'Memory Craft' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US) [and foreign translations, audio versions and so on]. My latest book is co-authored by Margo Neale. 'Songlines: the power and promise' and published by Thames & Hudson with the National Museum of Australia.

11 thoughts on “Memorising birds”

  1. Hello Lynne,
    Thank you for your books, I am absolutely wowed by this information and technique and have just finished making a memory palace around my local walk ….I was planning to use it to memorise the birds of SA, but then I read further in your book about the memory board or lukasa and wondered which would be the better system. Although at this stage I’m just trying to get my head around the concept and how best to arrange the families and species … I’m a horticulturalist and familiar with the latin system of taxonomy … but don’t quite know how to proceed with placing the families of birds so I can use it for birdwatching …
    Any suggestions most welcome 🙂

    1. Hi Jorji,

      Thank you for your lovely comments.

      A memory palace is, I believe, always the superior method. I used the lukasa because I was testing out the technique and was astounded how well it worked. With a lukasa, you are much more dependent on the stories to link the species. With a memory palace, you can find lots of locations within any single location, so it is easier to make the associations. It is always easier to encode when you are actually out on your walk ‘on Country’ and then call on the information any time from memory and imagination.

      You can either do a palace for all the species, which will probably require over 400 locations. That is possible, but it is a long way. Otherwise, I would do exactly what I did on the lukasa, but out on the walk. I’d do 80 or so locations depending on how many families you have – one location per family. I’d memorise the families first. That will then ground your palace. Adding species to the families can be done in any order. I left the ocean birds (albatrosses, and the endless Procellariidae – petrels, the prions, shearwaters) until last because I was unlikely to encounter them. I started with the birds I was seeing and whatever caught my attention at any moment, I did that family. I made any species which are the same genus become ‘brothers’ in my stories. No idea why they were brothers and no sisters, but that just happened. Because I did them in the taxonomic order given in the bird lists, the brothers are always next to each other in the palace. Then you just add more and more information to the stories and the locations.

      I act out some behaviours – my sanderlings (well, me imitating them) dance up and down the bit of lawn where they occur in the palace, sort of like they do on the beach with the waves. The more active, silly, emotional, vulgar … the actions and stories, the better it will stay in your memory. And have fun!

      I hope that makes sense. Please ask more if you want to!


  2. Splendid book! Most useful (to me) PhD I’ve ever read too… My apartment entry way runs from the archaean to the cenozoic. I started on the Greek Gods, legends & figures and felt like I was cheating by beginning with a list, until I read your line about not having elders, then it makes sense.

    Thank you for all the years of work you put into this, for sharing it with the world. I can’t believe the Wikipedia entries on carved balls and many of the monuments sites haven’t been updated yet to include your commentary. Only the entry on Easter island comes anywhere near addressing the question of memory codes.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Genevieve. It is wonderful to find people using the methods and finding them so effective and such fun.

      I would be delighted if the Wikipedia entries started to reflect my theory. Maybe one day!

      Thank you again!


  3. What is it that you find valuable and want to memorise?

    I tend to use the common names for species and only the family names scientifically, because few birders use the scientific names in the field and I haven’t memorised them yet. I have noted if they are the same genus. I found that knowing the family name was useful to group them and give me a base level. Plus birders will refer to the corvids or accipitrids or …, so I use those.

    Common names are a problem as they are not consistent, so I made a decision to start with the Christidis and Boles taxonomy and then add little stories if I need more. So blue wrens are superb fairy wrens while spur-winged plovers are masked lapwings. If more than one name is used consistently by different birders, then I will add that to the story. I want to add the scientific names, but I am doing 33 different experiments at the moment that it hasn’t been a priority. On my master list I have all the scientific names so I can cross check if there is confusion. I don’t have elders to teach me, so I need to start with a written list.

    The difference in the field of having an exhaustive list really works for me because I can use the process of elimination. I then include in the stories only the details I need to tell them apart, not all the descriptive things in the field guide. So I remember nothing for the kookaburra, say, because I am never going to mix it up with anything else. For the honeyeaters, I group them into those which need to be distinguished in the field. For example, my story records the difference between the brown-headed, black-chinned and white-naped, but I only need to distinguish them from each other.

    1. thanks Lynne, appreciate the response. I will start making a lukasa and see how I go…I log my seen birds by common name but would like to learn their scientific names. I think it will take some time.

  4. Hi Lynne, I am trying to work out how you actually began the process of memorising the bird families and names of the species. I like the idea of the board but can’t find the exact method in your book. You add the objects to the board, 82? to represent the the family names? then create journeys/songlines for all the birds within each family? The total number of objects matches the highest level? Assuming you started with Emu as the first native bird in the Vic families and associated it with the very first bead on the upper left corner of the lukasa?

    1. Hi Malt,

      Thank you for the interest and question. There is so much more to write that was simply beyond the word limit of the book.

      I didn’t add the objects to the board specifically to match the 82 families, although that probably would have worked better. I just added the objects and later decided to use it for birds. You would do better adding the right number if you are sure what you want. So for some families, I use a group of small beads. The way I move around the board was just what worked best when I tried it.

      I do start with the emu, that is Dromaiidae. That is the first small bead, top left, although mine has now fallen off and just left a sharp fragment. That works just as well as I press on it. There is only one bird in Dromaiidae, the emu so that is attached to the bead.

      I sing the families which has a rhythm and story linking them. I start by singing every fifth family, because that is only 16 and grounds the song. I then go back and sing the whole 82 in groups of five with a rhythm that just emerged with me saying / singing the scientific names. So I started by just singing each family name and touching the correct bead. I know the board so well now, that I don’t need it with me. Indigenous cultures build up their knowledge layer by layer, as we do, so the first layer is the family names.

      For the second layer, I attach the species to the family bead. The way I do that depends on the size of the family. Any family with less than 5 birds, I just make up a story and link it to the bead. Let’s bypass the second bead, Anatidae, the ducks and geese, for the moment and go to the third, Megapodidae – easy, one only, the malleefowl. The fourth bead is Phasianidae, the quails, pheasants and so on. There are four in Victoria: the stubble qail, brown quail, king quail and Indian Peafowl (or peacock). The word ‘Phasianidae’ sounds like fashion, so my story is about fashion. Clealy the peacock is the height of haute couture. The stubble quail doesn’t even shave properly – a slob. The brown quail is dull, dull, dull as a dresser. The king quail tries given his royalty, but he can never match the peacock. The story is something I mull about, even classify people as one of the four Phasianids.

      Slowly I made up stories for every family of less than 5 species and attached them to the beads. I could always find something to note about the bead. The Menuridae, for example, had a bit of glue dripped down, so I imagined that as urine from men urinating on a lyrebird mound – not an image I easily forget.

      Back to the Anatids. There are 16 ducks and geese. I attached them in 4s to a set of houses and a park I walk past on our daily walk. I am not sure why I did 4 not 5 for each location, but that is the way it happened naturally, so I did. Starting with the magpie goose at the first house and the black swan at the second, I decided on a football match between the magpies and the swans. Four of the ‘magpies’ come out of the first house, the ‘swans’ from the second. They swarm onto the park, where the match descends into a riot. The teals attempt to serve tea; one duck gets pink ears from the head butt of a hardhead; the musk duck is more interested in his cologne and attracting a mate for sex behind the bushes at the edge of the park. The shoveller buries the dead. And so on.


The Anatids story also indicates the way things can be adapted and higher layers of information added. Some taxonomers have the Magpie Goose as Anseranatidae. So in my song I have another voice which suggests, ‘answer-anatidae!’, to which I answer Anatidae. I hope that makes sense to you. It reminds me of that taxonomic difference. I also have a mnemonic to add in muscovies and greylags and Indian runners. It all just grows and grows while playing with it.

      The process of making up the stories really adds to the species becoming memorable. The stories have the species in the order of the bird list I used, so similar species are next to each other. I also have those of the same genus as brothers in the story – my clue to them being the same genus.

      I worked through all the families this way, not in any particular order but just depending on what bird was interesting me at the time or that we were seeing often and needed the ID. Consequently I started with the 36 honeyeaters.

      When the taxonomers combined the Cracticids (magpie, butcher birds and currawongs) with the Artamids (the woodswallows), I thought it was silly given how different they are in the field. So I added a story about the sweet little woodswallows overpowering the much stronger cracticids so I know they are all now Artamids, but it suits me to keep them separate as I already knew them that way. You can always add new knowledge once the stories are established.


Does that make sense?


      1. Thanks Lynne, appreciate the reply and details. Do you learn the Family name and then the common names? Do you add the Scientific name at all? so the family, scientific name and common are all matched?

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