Periods of history can be measured in bird books. There was Gould in the 1840s, and more recently no home was complete without Neville Cayley’s What Bird is That? first published in 1931. Then there was Graham Pizzey’s Field Guide (1980), or Simpson and Day (1984), and the excellent photographic Birds of Australia (Flegg and Longmore, Readers Digest, 1994).
Now we have The Australian Bird Guide, published by CSIRO.
This is a beautiful book. It’s (only just) small enough to qualify as a field guide, but you may need a slightly bigger shoulder bag for your binoculars and your sandwiches. The authors (there are six of them, three writers, three illustrators and an editor) tackle the question: why another bird book? in their introductory essays.
The answer? Firstly because many more species of bird have been identified since the last authoritative book was published; secondly because this handbook sets out to do something new and different in the number and variety of illustrations of bird species (936 and counting) in their various and changing forms; and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, advances in genetic science have allowed us to be far more accurate – and more confident – in the systematic identification of species.
Interestingly, CSIRO decided to use illustrators rather than photographers, in the interest of absolute clarity of identification. The three illustrators worked from photographs – some three million – from the life, and from specimens held by various museums, most especially CSIRO’s Australian National Wildlife Collection in Canberra. The result is nearly 5000 illustrations of brilliant quality.
This could be daunting, but the authors are clearly fond of their subjects, and the descriptions have an unexpected warmth.
Help with Scrabble
Who knew that kookaburras live in groups made up of a mating pair with up to seven “helpers”, who forage singly, but take care to roost together? That one of the eight sub-species of magpie can be distinguished by his white trousers? That the Barking Owl not only barks – woof-woof – which may be preceded by a low growl – but also produces “a long wavering scream (recalling a screaming woman)”. Enough to make the hair stand on end …
The end-papers contain an instant visual reference for finding that bird you just saw flitting past. And there’s a glossary of those obscure feathery terms: aigrette, culmen, gorget, gonys. All useful descriptors, all useful in a game of Scrabble.
A fine work.