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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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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Peter Menkhorst reviews 'Where Song Began' by Tim Low

Peter Menkhorst
Thursday, 30 October 2014

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 ...