Way back in 1987, while flicking through New Scientist, an article on birds caught my eye. It was about research that indicated the ancestors of Lyrebirds were among the world’s earliest songbirds. Back then, Australia was thought to be a refuge for species left over after it spit from the supercontinent, Gondwana. Songbirds were generally associated with Europe. The idea they had first evolved here seemed so unlikely that I kept the article, assuming the whole thing would go the way of cold fusion.
In Where Song Began, Tim Low tells how what was once theory became accepted fact. This is an exceptionally important book. High quality, up-to-date works on our natural history written for a general audience for are rare. Low generously stuffs his account of with fresh insights. It turns out the Treecreepers that live in the Blue Gums at the bottom of my street evolved from another ancient song bird. The Magpies that pick their way through the lawn only recently diverged from the local Butcherbirds. Once-mighty theories come crashing down. I was taught New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, including the Kiwi, only survived as it had split from Gondwana just before mammals big enough to eat them evolved. It turns out that their able-to-fly ancestors probably came from Australia after New Zealand drifted away and were large enough to suppress the development of mammals there.
There is much we still don’t know. The eminent archaeologist Colin Renfrew once observed that human DNA, archaeological and literary evidence remain difficult to reconcile. It’s the same with our birds. While it has long been known that Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea had a distinct birdlife, is only now becoming clear just how unique many local species are.
And how have we treated them? As Low recounts, we have destroyed large parts of their habitat, shot them en masseto decorate hats with their tail feathers, killed their young and collected or smashed their eggs. For decades, thousands of muttonbirds were bludgeoned to make a tanning oil, ‘Vita Tan’, sold to unsuspecting bathers at Bondi Beach. In Sydney, habitat destruction has caused the populations of many once-common species to decline sharply. Some face local extinction.
Low also provides fascinating insights into Australia’s economic history. Before the advent of plastics, we had a thriving trade in‘exudes’, the saps and gums that oozed from our native trees. They were used to make an extraordinary range of products, including gramophone records, cosmetics, chewing gum, paint and tooth paste.
Low’s accessible style makes this a very appealing book for those looking for an insight into Australia’s unique flora and fauna. It is a book you can dip into and be assured of learning something new.
Justin Cahill is a historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people and a study of the extinction of Sydney’s native birds.
He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.