The eccentric Aussie bushranger you’ve never heard of


Tim the Yowie Man


Tim the Yowie Man

Naturalist, author, broadcaster and tour guide Tim the Yowie Man has dedicated the past 25 years to documenting Australia’s unusual natural phenomena. He’s the author of several books, including Haunted and Mysterious Australia (New Holland, 2018). Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @TimYowie
ByTim the Yowie Man April 27, 2024
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Ned Kelly, Ben Hall and Captain Thunderbolt – the criminal exploits of these notorious bushrangers are forever etched into our national psyche. But what about the Birdman of the Coorong?

Unless you call the Coorong region of South Australia home – or have visited Lake Albert, one of its biggest waterways, in the past decade – then you probably haven’t heard of him.

Born John Francis Peggotty in Ireland in 1864, the bearded felon apparently earned his moniker due to his preferred mode of transport…on the back of an ostrich. Perched beside Lake Albert at Meningie in the heart of the Coorong is an information panel that looms almost as large as the life-sized saddled-up statue of the ostrich. 

Apparently, after sailing to Australia in 1890, the pistol-packing shirtless outlaw began a reign of terror, gallivanting around the Coorong and fleecing many a local of their belongings. The sign states that on 17 September 1899 (exact dates give authenticity, don’t they?), after being shot by a fisherman during a botched robbery attempt, Peggotty crawled into the undergrowth behind the dunes and was never seen again. 

I know what you’re thinking. Australia doesn’t have ostriches. However, the exotic birds, imported from South Africa, were farmed in the area, mainly for their feathers, in the late 1800s. It’s therefore plausible that some of these animals may have escaped or that one could have been commandeered by Peggotty as his steed.

But that’s where any skerrick of truth evaporates, because the fabled Birdman of the Coorong is as fanciful as he sounds. 

A deep dive through local newspapers of the 1890s reveals no reference to the daring deeds or death of the reported bushranger. There’s not a single scrap of evidence indicating that he ever existed.

A life-sized saddled-up statue of an ostrich at Lake Albert, representing John Francis Peggotty, the 'Birdman of the Coorong'.
Life-sized saddled-up statue of an ostrich at Lake Albert, representing John Francis Peggotty, the ‘Birdman of the Coorong’. Image credit: flickr/Michael Coghlan

One local who was willing to spill the beans is Meningie schoolteacher Denise Mason. “During the millennium drought, when the lake dried up, we were looking at ways to revitalise the town,” Denise says. “When someone on our tourism committee came up with the idea of the birdman, we ran with it,” she confesses. 

It’s not the first time Peggotty has gained notoriety. The story is based on an article that first appeared several decades ago, in that most questionable of tabloids on Australian life – People magazine. Denise did try to confirm the story’s veracity, but her research didn’t turn up much outside that magazine article. I’m not surprised. So there we have it: an elaborate urban myth, perpetuated by an overzealous tourism board. 

Perhaps Meningie ought to forge a sister-town relationship with the tourist authorities at Loch Ness?

Oh, and that statue? 

Closer inspection reveals it’s an emu painted in ostrich colours. Who’d have thought? And if the name Peggotty seems familiar, it was no doubt borrowed from the name of the character Peggotty in Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel David Copperfield. But don’t let truth get in the way of a good yarn!

Related: Australia’s most notorious bushrangers