Book Review: Where Song Began
Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World
by Tim Low
Yale University Press, 2016
The psychologically healthy majority of the world is so accustomed to looking upon the slightly diseased minority known as “birders” with a kind of benign, detached bemusement that it takes a bit of reminding to recall that the “birding” world is itself riven with castes and rivalries, with various warring sects constantly trying to push each other out of the nest. To those of us who don’t take spiral-bound notebooks and small binoculars to outdoor weddings, these internecine squabblings will seem as furtive and amusing as everything else that “birders” do, but the bird-people themselves take things very seriously. Is some poser coasting on amateur fare like Spring warblers and drowsy Manhattan hawks, or are they hacking into the back country in Iceland? Are the newbies relying on their fancy song-identification APPS? Worst of all – the sin unpardonable – is some bounder lying on his life list? You may titter, but people have been poked with ballpoint pens over these matters.
It’s this kind of intra-avian rivalry that’s lurking in the background of Tim Low’s terrific new book Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World, because one of those bird-world problems is hemispheric: the life-listing crowd tends to be snobby about Southern Hemisphere fowl, preferring the Northern Hemisphere wing-traffic despite the manifold splendor on display even in the birds of Australia alone. As Low points out immediately, this birding-world snootiness has in no way been shared by the more, er, grounded naturalists who’ve looked into the issue:
The idea of the continent having exceptional birds is an old one, going back hundreds of years to Dutch sailors spying swans dark as coal and naturalists finding decorative bowers in the cedar bushes of New South Wales. Australian exceptionalism, if that’s what we call it, peaked in a 1911 bird guide that was reprinted many times: ‘Competent authorities have proposed to divide the world, biologically, into two parts – Australia and the rest of the world, and they have considered Australia the more interesting part.’
Low breaks down that exceptionalism bird by bird, behavior by behavior, and location by location, from the fighting birds of the dense forests and jungles to the secretive birds of the New Guinea nighttime to, most memorably, the profusion of songbirds that originated in the Southern Hemisphere and then spread to the rest of the world. All of Australia’s most gaudy and exotic birds get their star turn in these pages, alongside the men and women who discovered them, hunted them, and obsessed over them, and all of it is written in Low’s snappy prose, a perfect blend of authoritative and accessible:
When biologists compare Australia to the rest of the world they sometimes emphasize the similarities, by talking about Australia having its own versions of Northern Hemisphere robins, flycatchers and creepers, as if evolution walks the same walk everywhere. There is value in this, but the differences are more revealing. A reading of recent research shows that Australian birds are more likely than most to eat sweet foods, live in complex societies, lead long lives, attack other birds, and be intelligent and loud.
The general drift of conclusions like this – that Australian birds live longer, eat better, enjoy company more, and tend to be both smart and argumentative – ie that Australian birds tend to be Australian – might seem a bit anti-climactic, but there’s a paradigm-resetting purpose running through Where Song Began, a long-running corrective against the provincialism that’s as much a part of the birding world as myopia and virginity. The many case studies Tim Low brings to light make it clear that those old naturalists were right: Australia is a vital hub of avian life on Earth, equal or possibly even superior to sub-Saharan Africa and mostly putting to shame the tepid brambles of California and the Allegenies. The birding world, if it ever gets wind of such talk, will fly into cacophonies of dissent and outrage and plumage-plucking. But the rest of us can sit back and enjoy one of the best works of natural history to appear all year.