Inside Story

Mad for the feathers

A lifelong birdwatcher reviews Libby Robin’s What Birdo Is That?

William McInnes Books 9 June 2023 1386 words

Road-sharing on Cape York Peninsula. Genevieve Vallee/Alamy

I like this book. A lot. And I like the author. I don’t know her, but I like the way she writes. And it’s lovely to read a book you like, written by someone whose name sounds like a nom de plume, or as my aunty (an avid birder) used to say, a Nundah plum. Libby Robin is the perfect name for an author of a book about birds and birders — or birdos, as she delightfully calls Australian bird fanciers. She has a uniquely Australian way of looking at those whose passion, interest and even careers centre on birds.

To Robin’s mind, the way we think about birdos was burnished in the years after the second world war, when a great wave of human immigration swept into this nation and projects like the Snowy Mountains scheme became gold star efforts in the national photo album.

Sir William Hudson, commissioner of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, told European workers, “You will no longer be Balts and Slavs but Men of the Snowy.” He basically meant Australian, which might seem rich coming from a bloke born in New Zealand, but that is one of the interesting things about so many Australians — they come from somewhere else. And unlike migrating birds they enrich this place by staying and building their nests and calling it home. The migrating birds nick off back to where they’ve come from.

Robin’s point is that the new wave of immigrants got to know their new nest by trying to understand its environment, and birds were obvious examples of the similarities and differences between where they came from and where they found themselves.

As a counterpoint to the Snowy scheme, Robin recalls an Aboriginal Australian radio host laughing along with her about how “locals” (the host and friends) took great delight in laughing at the foibles of the “bird people” who come from all over the world to Alice Springs to add to their “life list” of birds. Watching the newbies make a mess of birdwatching was thoroughly entertaining.

This is important, because there is a distinct Britishness to the idea of birdwatching. Even though the eccentric, genteel birdwatcher is a bit of cliché, the British Empire was in a very real sense an epic imperial pickpocketing of other nations’ cultures, wealth, and flora and fauna. There is a feeling of rapaciousness in collating information and collecting specimens, and a sense that many bird people create little feathered fiefdoms.

The birdos’ world is a layered and complex one, starting with the fascinating difference between twitchers and birdwatchers. A twitcher will go to great lengths to view a bird, mark off the target on a list, and then move on to the next nugget of avian gold. A birdwatcher is content to watch birds, learn a little about them and, usually, gather in a group to pool experience. Both are completely fine occupations, but the difference turns out to be important as Robin describes the complexity of being a birdo.

Robin tells her story in a straightforward, fact-filled way, and gives us a glossary of acronyms for the countless number of birding and conservation groups that dot its pages. And the stories she tells of birdos — the petty jealousies, the political manoeuvrings, the epic but unsuccessful treks, the blind, even hapless, luck of some discoveries — cover the spectrum of human emotions.

It helps if you like birds, I suppose. I grew up in a house surrounded by trees. Moreton Bay figs, tall gums, enormous fruit-laden mango trees. They could be anything to a young imagination — castles to storm, mountains to climb, ships to sail, rockets to soar into space. And they contained a menagerie of wildlife: fruit bats, possums and, most wonderfully of all, birds.

We were surrounded by the sounds and sights of all sorts of birdlife. Lorikeets chattering in the fruit trees, the crows with their laconic calls a backdrop to the day, butcherbirds, singing magpies, robins, finches, kookaburras and doves. It was there my interest in birds was born.

Even sparrows held a certain fascination, going about their business looking humbly fetching with their tan, grey and brown colouring. Introduced from Britain in the mid nineteenth century, they were considered pests. I spent hours trying to trap the things in homemade contraptions made of fishing line, sticks and cardboard boxes, with bits of bread as temptations to attract the little fidgets.

I had no hope of catching any, but as long as I amused myself my mother was more than happy. I remember a neighbour of ours, Mr King, muttering under his breath “Bloody sparrows, another lousy gift from the Poms.”

Robin tells a lovely story about a sighting of one of Australia’s rarest birds, the night parrot. Shane Parker, the South Australian Museum’s then curator of birds, was on a tourist camel trip when others noticed he’d frozen at the back of the group. He sat pointing, mouth open, his face “whiter than his pith helmet.” Rex Ellis, who has run bush safari tours for over fifty years, raced back to Parker and asked him what the matter was.

Parker, usually an articulate man, was having difficulty making any sensible communication. He replied in a shaking voice, “I have just seen a night parrot.” At first, Ellis’s response was mixed — disbelief and a little envy — for, in his words, to find such a specimen “had always seemed an unattainable dream, but the sight of Shane’s face and his incoherency could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he had seen a night parrot.”

The story reminded me of my mother-in-law, a lovely woman who was a lifelong birder, and a friend of hers who was also a birder. The friend came marching up to me at a birthday celebration and said, without an introduction and in a slightly accusing tone, “Anna has just told me that you saw a Gouldian finch… in habitat!”

I admitted I had — on a trip to the Northern Territory, quite by chance — so, yes, it was true.

“What did it look like?” asked the friend. “Quickly please.”

I think she thought that a quick prompt would reveal I hadn’t seen any such thing. She was, after all, a lawyer of some note.

“Like it was wearing a jumper from the 1980s, lots of colours that shouldn’t have matched but sort of did” was the best I could come up with.

She looked at me, nodded and said slowly, “Wouldn’t find that description in a field guide, but quite accurate in its way. I hope you know how lucky you were.”

I assured her I did.

She wasn’t rude, just a birdo, somebody who was “mad for the feathers,” as my aunt would say of herself and others of the bird-fancying tribe.

Most of my encounters with birds aren’t recorded, but some years ago I had the good fortune to host a layperson’s TV journey through the world of birds and birdos. I came into very close personal contact with an eager male emu (type “William McInnes” and “emu” into a search engine and enjoy!), watched orange-bellied parrots at close range, went on a pelagic day trip that defies plausible description and, in short, entered the lives of people who had a passion for birds.

Birds defy gravity. They soar, sweep, sing and nestle in our imagination. But there’s more: as Robin writes, bird fancying, birding, twitching or being a birdo — call it what you will — is also a cover for understanding “land management, for understanding ecological connections, for relaxation and happiness,” even “for understanding global interdependency.”

Birdwatching also seems to me to tell us something about ourselves as human beings. It’s not too much of a stretch to think we share our marvelling at birds’ antics with people like Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote, “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward.”

And if being a birdo was good enough for old Leo then it’s good enough for the rest of us, and a good start would be to read this wonder-filled book. •

What Birdo Is That? A Field Guide to Bird-people
By Libby Robin | Melbourne University Press | $40 | 272 pages