Tim Low 2014. Where Song Began. Australia’s birds and how they changed the world. Viking: Australia, 405 pp.

A great read, in parts. Lots of interesting information and theories, easy to absorb. The clear language and layout also makes it easy to skip familiar information, like the long section on what a pest parrots can be, and the explanation of why New Guinea is part of Australia from an evolutionary and biogeographic viewpoint - hardly newsworthy to most Australians with a passing interest in natural history). Heavily referenced, mostly in the primary literature.

The first chapters are about the Sibley and Ahlquist “Out of Australia” songbird origin story; and about how nutrient poor Australia fostered a close relationship between flowering plants and birds (especially honeyeaters and parrots). All because sugars are produced in excess by eucalypts since the relative lack of nutrients leave plenty of energy remaining, available to birds in the form of resins, exudates (lerps etc) and nectar. The botanical side of this supposed mechanism isn’t well explained by Tim Low and not much better in the primary literature he cites (Orians & Milewski (2007) Biological reviews 82: 393-423). A theory that despite wide acceptance seems a “Just So” kind of story to me. The book is peppered with lots of plausible but unprovable stories like that, and anecdotes that don’t go far. Plenty to learn though, for example:

  • Co-operative breeding is apparently plesiomorphic in Australian songbirds. But co-operative breeders are not mobile. Thus, mostly pair breeders would have dispersed, explaining why pair-breeding birds are more common elsewhere.
  • Parrots are sister to songbirds. There are 3 parrot groups: the 3 NZ parrot species; cockatoos; and the rest (Psittacidae).
  • Songbirds only became seed eaters elsewhere, after they left Australia, where seed eating competitors pigeons and parrots dominated.
  • New Zealand, benefiting from the productivity of the Southern Ocean Circulation and with lots of suitable safe nesting islands has the highest seabird diversity in the world.
  • A handy bird taxonomy web site by an amateur ornighologist (not updated since 2014, however).

Anyone who has had the very great pleasure of watching Wandering Albatross on the wing in a Southern Ocean storm will be in total agreement with Tim Low’s statement on this subject:

Seabirds in wind are hypnotic to watch. I don’t believe I’ve spent as much time absorbed by anything wild as by the Wandering Albatross. (p.252)

Wandering Albatross CW