Ornithology

The Atlas of Australian Birds by M. Blakers, S.J.J.F. Davies, and P.N. Reilly

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May 1985, no. 70

When I first heard of an impending Atlas of Australian Birds, my expectations were, it now seems to me, naive, showing certainly no acquaintance with the ‘birds atlas projects [which] have been developed in many other countries’ (actually, the bibliography numbers attached to this direct us to just three such projects: a use of ‘many’ learned, perhaps, from such usages as ‘this wine will improve with cellaring for many years’).

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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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The Australian Bird Guide edited by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin

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October 2017, no. 395

With five illustrated field guides, two e-guide apps, and at least three photographic guides available to help people identify birds in Australia, some would question the need for yet another. The first field guide to Australian birds, written and illustrated by renowned bird artist Peter Slater, was published in 1970 and 1974 (two volumes) ...

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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 claims in this important and illuminating book that Australia’s bird fauna is at least as exceptional as our mammal fauna, which has such remarkable elements as the egg-laying monotremes (platypus, echidna) and our marvellous radiation of marsupials (kangaroos, quolls, bandicoots, possums, etc.). Can this be so? As a mammologist, my initial response was that Low’s claim is a bit rich, but, after reading this book, I take his point.

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Why would a famous virologist and immunologist (and Nobel laureate) write a book linking birds, human diseases, and ecological degradation? The answer is partly that Peter Doherty obviously has a soft spot for birds and birdwatching. He argues that anyone with an enquiring mind and a natural history ...

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Rich in achievement, the artist and naturalist John William Lewin died in Sydney on 27 August 1819; he was forty-nine. With public funds, a stone was erected over his grave in the city’s new cemetery in Devonshire Street. While the inscription referred to Lewin’s official status as the town coroner, its discursive text lamented the loss ‘to this country of an Eminent Artist in his line of Natural History Painting in which he excelled’. Two years previously, in an official dispatch commending several fine drawings to the secretary of colonies in London, Governor Lachlan Macquarie – the last but most significant of a succession of vice-regal admirers and patrons – had praised ‘the Masterly Hand of Mr Lewin’. Schooled in England in a tradition of generic natural history illustration in which specimens were placed at the centre of a page devoid of all context, in Australia Lewin’s work was transformed by precise observations and an innovative approach to the illustration of natural history that was unprecedented. For him, New South Wales – its landscape, flora, and fauna, its Indigenous inhabitants, its own growth to a settled colony – was literally inspiring.

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Fernando Nottebohm has been interested in birdsong since early childhood. By 2001 he had spent thirty years at Rockefeller University in New York studying how birds learn to sing, concentrating on canaries who are capable of learning new songs each year. His interest has been to study birdsong as ‘a model for the brain’. He studied the brains of caged birds and birds in the wild. The birds that needed to forage and escape predators produced more neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is essential to memory.

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When the English zoologist John Gould died in London in February 1881, he was renowned for his scientific and descriptive studies, principally of birds – those found in his native Britain, the Himalayas, Europe, Australia, North America, and New Guinea – but also of Australian mammals. In the course of his self-made career, Gould produced forty-one large volumes, handsomely illustrated with 3000 plates. These were the work of several artistic collaborators, including, importantly, his wife, Elizabeth, and – early and briefly – Edward Lear, famous later in his own right for his limericks and as a masterly writer of nonsense verse and prose. In addition to his great published works of natural history, Gould was the author of many learned papers and the recipient of high honours from scientific societies. As a leader in his field, he interacted as an equal with aristocratic men of science and affairs; the members of the governing class of his day.

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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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