Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds And How They Changed TheWorld

Tim Low

Where Song Began: Australia's Birds And How They Changed TheWorld
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Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds And How They Changed TheWorld

Tim Low

Renowned for its unusual mammals, Australia is a land of birds that are just as unusual, just as striking, a result of the continent’s tens of millions of years of isolation. Compared with birds elsewhere, ours are more likely to be intelligent, aggressive and loud, to live in complex societies, and to be large and long-lived. They’re also ecologically more powerful, exerting more influences on forests than other birds. But unlike the mammals, the birds did not keep to Australia; they spread around the globe.

Australia provided the world with its songbirds and parrots, the most intelligent of all bird groups. It was thought in Darwin’s time that species generated in the Southern Hemisphere could not succeed in the Northern, an idea that was proven wrong in respect of birds in the 1980s but not properly accepted by the world’s scientists until 2004 - because, says Tim Low, most ornithologists live in the Northern Hemisphere. As a result, few Australians are aware of the ramifications, something which prompted the writing of this book.

Tim Low has a rare gift for illuminating complex ideas in highly readable prose, and making of the whole a dynamic story. Here he brilliantly explains how our birds came to be so extraordinary, including the large role played by the foods they consume (birds, too, are what they eat), and by our climate, soil, fire, and Australia’s legacy as a part of Gondwana. The story of its birds, it turns out, is inseparable from the story of Australia itself, and one that continues to unfold, so much having changed in the last decade about what we know of our ancient past. Where Song Began also shines a light on New Guinea as a biological region of Australia, as much a part of the continent as Tasmania.

This is a work that goes far beyond the birds themselves to explore the relationships between Australia’s birds and its people, and the ways in which scientific prejudice have hindered our understanding.

Review

Australia is renowned for its cuddly marsupials, but did you know that its birds are even more unique and evolutionarily significant? Esteemed Australian biologist Tim Low tells the incredible story of the origins of global bird life, a narrative about the crucial role these feathered friends have played in flora evolution, ecology, and the birth of song. Delivering an expansive review of biogeographical and ornithological research, Low communicates the thrill of academic discovery to the lay reader through accessible and witty prose. And this story is exciting: ambitious in scope and filled with daring reconstructions of the past, Low’s provocative study turns a number of evolutionary assumptions on their heads. Among the more stunning suggestions is that all the world’s songbirds, as well as other perching birds, originated in Australia. Low reveals the anthropocentric bias underpinning the view that birds had genesis in the Northern Hemisphere, an orthodoxy that has held sway until only very recently; Low’s argument is a terrific example of rigour winning over dogma.

Another inverted binary indicates that a number of bird species have higher intelligence than mammals. Being older, evolutionarily speaking, does not necessarily equate with being primitive. Low demonstrates how the noisy aggression of Australian nectar birds has seen them gain ecological power that is unprecedented elsewhere in the world. Descriptions of the evolutionary relationships between birds and Australian flora are extensive, with examples from fire-based serotiny to liquid seascapes illustrating how behaviours and environments shape one another. The book also considers relationships between birds and humans, noting the strange suburban affections that persist towards the world’s most dangerous birds. Where Song Began eschews notions of beauty and harmony in favour of evidence supporting aggression, dominance and discord; the story does not lack drama for the caution it takes with the truth. Low’s book will sensitise readers to their bird-filled environments and inject critical insights into ecological pasts and futures.


Lucy Van is a freelance reviewer.

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 Read reviewWhere Song Began: Australia's Birds And How They Changed TheWorld

Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds And How They Changed TheWorld

Tim Low

Renowned for its unusual mammals, Australia is a land of birds that are just as unusual, just as striking, a result of the continent's tens of millions of years of isolation. Compared with birds elsewhere, ours are more likely to...

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