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Where Song Began

Sulphur-crested cockatoos in Sydney

What I most missed after a trip to Australia last year wasn’t the beaches or the local accents. It was the sounds of the birds.

The plaintive cries of the Australian ravens, the laughing kookaburras, and the screeching cockatoos. I realized after I returned home that I never had associated Australia with exotic birds. This is the land of the kangaroo and the koala and so many other marsupials.

But it is the birds that brought me to this amazing book: Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World, by Tim Low.

Australia is not some avian backwater,  as early European visitors widely assumed. Settlers introduced starlings and other species in an effort to introduce songbirds to the land. But it wasn’t that Australia didn’t have birds that could sing, it was that the Europeans weren’t fully listening.

Thanks to DNA, we now know that Australia is the wellspring of the planet’s songbirds. And it wasn’t until the second half of the last century that Australians themselves began to appreciate that songbirds evolved in their backyards. And it’s not only songbirds that Australia gave the word but parrots.

New South Wales has 33 species of parrot — and the Sydney region alone boasts more species than most countries on the planet.

Australia is also home to the largest concentration of honeyeater species. And why? Because the country gave us trees that are actually very large flowers that give off stupendous amounts of nectar. These are eucalyptus trees. In Australia, it’s not just the bees that pollinate — it is birds.

Back to the songbirds, one of the most ancient songbirds is the lyrbird, native to Australia.

I found this video of a lyrebird and it is truly unbelievable to see — and tragic when you hear the final sounds the bird echoes.

This is a dense book that I would advise only for those who are eager to be overwhelmed by bird species (with each passing chapter I realized I knew less and less about birds). But it’s also a beautiful book written by an author who not only loves Australia’s many avian species but is doing his part to help protect them.

Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World

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BirdNote: Chirp-sized bird stories from the popular radio show

Here in Ashland, Oregon, I listen to our local radio station KSKQ. And for the past several years I’ve enjoyed the weekly, two-minute BirdNote programs.

So I was excited to find that there is now a BirdNote book. What the book lacks in audio, it makes up for in very high print production values; it is beautifully designed, with full-color illustrations and a handy bookmark tassel.

This will make an excellent gift for the would-be birder in your family. And even veteran birders will enjoy it. While I’d like to think I’ve learned a fair amount about birds over the years spent gazing upwards, I still learned plenty, such as:

  • The Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker rely heavily on ants that bore through the trees. A Norther Flicker was known to consume 5,000 ants in one sitting (or perching).
  • The Green Heron may use a “bait” of twigs, feathers or insects to attract fish within reach of their bills.
  • A barn swallow eats up to 850 insects a day — making this a wonderful bird to have around not just a barn, but any yard.
  • There is a crow roost in Illinois that is home to 100,000 crows. I would love to hear that.
  • The cardinal (who I sorely miss out here in the Oregon) was named after the red hats and robes of the Roman cardinals.
  • And speaking of red, cars this color are most often targeted by birds doing their business, according to a study. Green cars are least likely to be targeted.
  • And the much-maligned starling gets some deserved love. I find their symphony of sounds to be truly remarkable. And I was not alone; turns out Mozart had a pet starling that he wrote a poem about after it passed on.

My only complaint is that it would have been nice to see longer, more informative notes. A number of notes come in at just a few paragraphs.

Also, while some chapters do explain why certain species are threatened, such as the California Condor, I would have liked to see more of this, such as regarding the many species of albatross now under threat.

Quibbles aside, I recommend this book to anyone who loves birds (or anyone you think should love birds).

PS: All BirdNotes can be listened to online here

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show

Publisher: Sasquatch Books

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Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors

holy_molli

The Laysan albatross is known as Mōlī in Hawaiian. It is difficult not to speak in superlatives when describing the albatross. The bird has a wingspan longer than most humans are tall. Albatross far outlive most other birds — with one active albatross now 64 years old. They spend most of their lives  at sea, gliding just a few inches above the waves. Only 5% of their lives are spent on land — and this is where they are particularly vulnerable, when they are breeding and caring for their chicks.

Author Hob Osterlund is founder of the Kaua’i Albatross Network an organization that works to protect these birds. And through her writing you experience firsthand the challenges she and the birds face in establishing their relatively new colony. Generation by generation, Osterlund shares a wealth of stories, some happy and some not so.

Like the story of twin chicks, born to a couple that cannot possibly provide for both. Osterlund writes:

If you are like a lot of people, you might interrupt me now. You might ask if there wasn’t a way to hand-feed the chicks. I would have to refer you to Aaron; feeding a seabird is more complex than feeding a songbird. You have to be trained and officially authorized to slurry a squid and force-feed a ‘tross.

You might also ask whether The Twins should be euthanized to prevent their inevitable suffering. You might blame our species, and your own good self, for the many ways we’ve harmed the birds and their oceans. You might search for data to diminish your sorrow, to find a precedent. Alas, you will find little consolation in facts. None, actually. An albatross pair simply cannot catch and carry enough food to sustain two offspring.

We must try to be as brave as the babes, you and I.

But this is much more than a book about the albatross.

Interspersed are personal stories of a woman who lost her mother way too early. A woman who migrated to Hawaii after having been summoned in a dream by her ancestor.

Osterlund is a wonderful writer, deftly documenting a painful childhood while retaining her sense of humor throughout. She believes strongly in the power of humor, and this attitude carries through her writing.

As a bird lover, I appreciate how birds and humans are treated equally in this book. The birds have names, strong personalities, complex lives. They are, in other words, a lot like us. And, in other ways, they are our betters. Their navigational skills put most GPS devices to shame. And their willingness to raise chicks not of their own making is inspiring.

This is a lovely book about devoting your life to another species and coming to terms with your own.

Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors

Oregon State University Press

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