Bird stories for a dry country

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Libby Robin, Robert Heinsohn and Leo Joseph (eds), Boom & Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, 2009. RRP $39.95. ISBN 978 0 643 09606 6. Online

Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry CountryAnyone who has read Sean Dooley's The Big Twitch understands the image of eccentricity and obsession that can attach to amateur ornithologists. Yet it is dangerous if we ignore the fortunes of avifauna, because they inhabit the Australian landscape like canaries in a coalmine.

The contributors to Boom & Bust, including botanists, zoologists, philosophers, environmentalists, sociologists, hydrologists and archaeologists, provide a timely scientific reminder that the fate of birds is inextricably tied to our own.

Libby Robin and Mike Smith point out that Australia leads the world in mammalian extinction and in threatened species. They argue that 'people can interact with natural dynamics to constrain or amplify them' especially through their impacts on species and habitats.

Taking an active interest in the activities of birds is, then, a responsibility of every Australian, made more urgent by climate change.

Robin and Leo Joseph provide a gentle but vital methodological introduction, describing the arrival of the research party — 'our rag-tag group of academics' — in a dry creek bed in Central Australia. Particularly informative is the interaction between the disciplines involved, whose practitioners are united by their respect for the birds of this dry land and the adaptations they make to climatic variability.

A chapter by the late Graham Pizzey describes the popular perceptions of an 'irruption' of the black-tailed native hen in populated areas of the south-east after rains in the early 1970s. Steve Morton on the zebra finch, David Roshier on the grey teal and Julian Reid on the pelican explain the importance of breeding periodicity, migration, group behaviour and adaptation to 'anthropogenic-driven environmental change' in the survival of these relatively common birds.

Penny Olsen reflects on the elusive night parrot, of which there have been few recent sightings. In 1990 and in 2006 it 'turned itself in' as road kill. Protected by the desert, the night parrot 'has gone bust, but has not yet turned to dust'.

Unfortunately, as Smith reports, the genyornis is extinct. This large flightless bird seems to have succumbed perhaps 50,000 years ago to the combined effects of habitat fragmentation through climate change and the introduction of predation by humans.

Deborah Bird Rose explores the complexities of Indigenous concepts of country and kinship. Rose is interested in 'pattern, connectivity, patchiness and flux' and uses the rainbird to illustrate the importance of birds as 'tellers' of environmental fluctuation.

In examining the evolution of species of woodswallows, Joseph ponders those that have not survived, while Robert Heinsohn suggests that the co-operative breeding habits of the white-winged chough might well be a metaphor for the way that humans react to cycles of boom and bust.

Robin offers a warning about our national symbol, the emu. The fencing of the land is a direct threat to a ground species that practises nomadism to cope with boom and bust. Noting the observation by Indigenous people that emus and kangaroos graze together because they watch out for one another, warning of danger, she argues that 'where booms and busts can change country dramatically, a nation needs watchful guardians, day and night'.

As Robin and Joseph suggest, 'the stage is set for a boom in understanding'. This important book shows that if we ignore the warnings provided by birds and by the scholarly researchers who interpret bird behaviour, we could invite the worst bust in our history.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.

Topic tags: Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, CSIRO, Libby Robin, Robert Heinsohn, Leo Joseph



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I think this book is definitely worth a read, given the unmotivated new government and their procrastinating ways that are ensuring failure of green change. Thanks Tony great review.

Neilium | 26 June 2009  

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