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Flying south

Aussie biologist explores origins of bird calls

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/1/2017 (1271 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.

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