Ornithology

One of the most bizarre as well as unfortunate deaths in literary history occurred when the playwright Aeschylus was struck by a tortoise dropped on him by a bird. Bizarre, that is, if we don’t consider what the bird involved was doing, which was clever as well as practical. From the bird’s perspective, the tortoise was being dropped on a convenient stone rather than the bald head of a Greek tragedian who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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It’s late July and high over the foggy green waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, a solitary Grey Plover beats its way south. Within sight of Sakhalin Island, the former Russian prison colony documented by Anton Chekhov, she veers west, heading for a vast tidal flat in Ul’banskiy Bay, not far from the rural settlement of Tugur Village. It’s hard to imagine a more isolated situation, and yet even here, in this empty theatre of sky and water, there is an audience. Nestled under the plumage on her back is a small satellite transmitter. An aerial extending beyond her tail feathers broadcasts her progress to the world.

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Australia’s birds stand out from the global avian pack in many ways – ecologically, behaviourally, because some ancient lineages survive here, and because many species are endemic. The ancestors of more than half of the planet’s ten thousand bird species (the songbirds) evolved right here (eastern Gondwana) before spreading across the world. Indeed, Tim Low cl ...

Late in 2005, after months of delicate negotiations, the National Library of Australia announced a remarkable coup: the purchase of a previously unknown collection of fifty-six watercolours of botanical and ornithological subjects drawn and painted in Sydney in the years 1788–90, the cradle period of European settlement in Port Jackson. The significance of these paintings, unsigned and undated, had for many years gone unrecognised. The watercolours, apparently acquired as early as 1792, had been held in England over several generations by the Moreton family, the Earls of Ducie. Over several generations, their significance had apparently been overlooked or simply not understood; in time, the portfolio, though safely held, had been forgotten. It came to light in 2004 during a routine valuation of the estate of Basil Moreton, sixth Earl of Ducie. The eventual sale was negotiated with representatives of the present and seventh Earl, David Moreton, who was committed to honouring his family’s long connection with Australia on properties in Queensland. But before that, it was necessary to identify the works more definitively beyond their (then) presumed Australian subject matter.

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Boom & Bust: Bird stories for a dry country edited by Libby Robin, Robert Heinsohn and Leo Joseph

by
June 2009, no. 312

The concept behind this book is unusual and ambitious. In twelve essays centred on charismatic birds of Australia’s inland, the authors attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the ecology of arid Australia. They also hope that their writings will provide insights and inspiration about how humans might live there in a more sustainable way. Birds were selected as the linking theme of these essays because their ecology is comparatively well known, because their mobility increases the options available for surviving in the harsh and unpredictable desert environment, and because birds, to many readers, are the most familiar group of animals.

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If the history of ornithology seems esoteric, of interest only to specialists, this is the book to open your eyes. Tim Birkhead is an eminent field ornithologist and a gifted and passionate science communicator. Each of these elements shines from this book, a wonderful distillation of the vast ornithological literature that has accumulated over the past four centuries. Effectively a history of natural history, it is a delight to read.

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