April 24, 2019

Winnipeg
19° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

Flying south

Aussie biologist explores origins of bird calls

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/1/2017 (823 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Researchers have not yet discovered the origins of human speech, and perhaps they never will. But ornithologists have recently discovered the origins of bird calls and birdsong — in, of all places, Australia.

This forms the core argument of Tim Low’s dense but fascinating newest book, Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World.

The Brisbane-based Low, a biologist and environmental consultant, is part of a new breed of ornithologists — those active in the Southern Hemisphere. Part of his mission is to give ornithology a more global perspective, erasing the northern focus that has biased bird studies until only recently. That prejudice — most researchers have historically lived and worked in the wealthier and more established northern countries — had assumed Australia was an empty receptacle for birds. Low sees it as the fountainhead for most world bird species.

According to Low, more than half of the world’s 10,000 species of birds originated in Gondwana, the super-continent that separated from what’s now Africa, drifted west and became, in part, Australia. Especially noteworthy were all of the passerines (songbirds) and parrots, and many of the pigeons. Over eons they evolved and “radiated” out to the rest of the world.

Get the full story.
No credit card required. Cancel anytime.

Join free for 30 days

After that, pay as little as $0.99 per month for the best local news coverage in Manitoba.

 

Already a subscriber?

Log in

Join free for 30 days

 

Already a subscriber?

Log in

Subscribers Log in below to continue reading,
not a subscriber? Create an account to start a 30 day free trial.

Log in Create your account

Your free trial has come to an end.

We hope you have enjoyed your trial! To continue reading, we recommend our Read Now Pay Later membership. Simply add a form of payment and pay only 27¢ per article.

For unlimited access to the best local, national, and international news and much more, try an All Access Digital subscription:

Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

Your free trial has come to an end.

We hope you have enjoyed your trial! To continue reading, we recommend our Read Now Pay Later membership. Simply add a form of payment and pay only 27¢ per article.

For unlimited access to the best local, national, and international news and much more, try an All Access Digital subscription:

Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Mon to Sat Delivery

Pay

$34.36

per month

  • Includes all benefits of All Access Digital
  • 6-day delivery of our award-winning newspaper
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/1/2017 (823 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Researchers have not yet discovered the origins of human speech, and perhaps they never will. But ornithologists have recently discovered the origins of bird calls and birdsong — in, of all places, Australia.

This forms the core argument of Tim Low’s dense but fascinating newest book, Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World.

Mark Baker / The Associated Press files</p><p>A regent honeyeater is seen at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. With the population of regent honeyeaters plummeting, Australian officials have turned to captive breeding in the hopes of saving the endangered bird species from extinction.</p>

Mark Baker / The Associated Press files

A regent honeyeater is seen at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. With the population of regent honeyeaters plummeting, Australian officials have turned to captive breeding in the hopes of saving the endangered bird species from extinction.

The Brisbane-based Low, a biologist and environmental consultant, is part of a new breed of ornithologists — those active in the Southern Hemisphere. Part of his mission is to give ornithology a more global perspective, erasing the northern focus that has biased bird studies until only recently. That prejudice — most researchers have historically lived and worked in the wealthier and more established northern countries — had assumed Australia was an empty receptacle for birds. Low sees it as the fountainhead for most world bird species.

According to Low, more than half of the world’s 10,000 species of birds originated in Gondwana, the super-continent that separated from what’s now Africa, drifted west and became, in part, Australia. Especially noteworthy were all of the passerines (songbirds) and parrots, and many of the pigeons. Over eons they evolved and "radiated" out to the rest of the world.

Low already has six books to his credit, among them Feral Future: The Untold Story of Australia’s Exotic Invaders and The New Nature: Winners & Losers in Wild Australia. He is both a best-selling author and winner of many awards. Released in 2015 in Australia, Where Song Began was an instant best-seller and winner of, among many other accolades, the Australian Book Industry Awards’ prize for general non-fiction.

The secret to Low’s success as a writer is his ability to combine the latest in DNA and continental drift research with national history, indigenous folklore, plant and soil biology, apt quotations from literary giants ranging from Rudyard Kipling to Geoffrey Chaucer, and personal experiences as a birder. He is widely read, widely travelled, a careful scholar and an ambitious, lively writer.

Even to well-read birding enthusiasts, every page will provide surprises and revelations. Did you know that barn swallows are the most widespread songbird? Or that ancient hummingbirds resembled nightjars and swifts? Or that the dodo was related to pigeons? Or that far more nectar is available to birds in Australia than on any other continent?

Because so much nectar is available, Australian birds are "more likely than most to eat sweet foods, live in complex societies, lead long lives, attack other birds, and be intelligent and loud." If you’ve ever been in the vicinity of a sulphur-crested cockatoo or a rainbow lorikeet (members of the parrot family), the loudness will come as no surprise. They don’t sing, they screech.

But even Australia’s honeyeaters are larger than others, and they defend their caches of nectar fiercely — both physically and vocally. Because they live in colonies, they don’t need musical songs to attract mates, and they can learn from each other more easily.

The birds of the Northern Hemisphere have narrower behaviours, constrained by migration and cold, dark winters. According to Low, their territories are relatively small and temporary, and their quieter vocalizations usually last only during breeding season (not entirely true). So, says Low, "[o]ur sense of what the world’s birds are like was skewed by these northern birds."

Where Song Began was written for the average reader, but can be tough going at times. It’s a monumental and revealing book, covering everything from grassfinches and the role of fire, to dangerous cassowaries, to seabirds (which reach their global peak around Australia).

Achieving the lofty status of its Australian edition in the rest of the world is unlikely. (National pride and a familiarity with local birds, plants and terminology account for some of its success there.) But it’s certainly worth the attention of anyone interested in current ideas about bird evolution and the interplay of birds and land.

Gene Walz is the author of Happiness Is a Rare Bird: Living the Birding Life, just released by Turnstone Press.

Advertisement

Advertise With Us

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.

Advertisement

Advertise With Us