Bilbies or bunnies?

This week our local Canberra supermarket has shelves full of chocolate versions of Peter Rabbit, well-timed for the Easter chocolate frenzy. This is not Peter as I know him from Beatrix Potter’s delicate watercolour paintings of the English countryside, but is based on the new ‘live-action computer animated comedy’ film characterisation of Peter. Same blue jacket and big eyes, but somehow more cybernetic than cute.

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Another generation of Australian children is being transported by Peter Rabbit’s adventures in the lush green English countryside, while outside in real life the grass is brown, dry, and full of droppings from an infestation of disease-ridden rabbits. It must be many years since anyone would think it was a good idea to make a pie from wild rabbits—the awful fate of Peter’s father at the hands of Mrs McGregor.

Celebrating the fecundity of rabbits to symbolise the new life of spring sits oddly in our autumnal southern hemisphere Easter, where rabbits are a serious agricultural pest. But in Australia there is an alternative: the Easter Bilby.

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The Save the Bilby project has a ‘Bilbies not bunnies’ slogan for Easter, with a range of fund-raising chocolate products. I had never heard of bilbies. There seem to be so many Australian marsupials endangered and under habitat threat from European rabbits and the like—quolls, bettongs, northern hairy-nosed wombats… Luckily ‘bilby’ makes a good alliterative and rhyming partner to ‘bunny’. It evidently comes from an old British dialect word for ‘squirrel or rabbit’, and the word ‘bilby’ is possibly from Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay—the Aboriginal languages I work with—in which it is ‘bilba’. Both bunnies and bilbies have long ears and live in burrows, so they are a good match.

The bilby conservation work is also a perfect fit with the Easter theme of renewal, linking well to revival work for Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay, whose existence in the linguistic ecology of Australia is under threat. Plus the chocolate bilby is cute. This Easter I will definitely be buying bilbies, not bunnies.