Where Song Began by Tim Low

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.