JOHN GOULD'S EXTINCT AND ENDANGERED BIRDS OF AUSTRALIA. By Sue Taylor.
National Library of Australia. 256pp. $49.95.
Reviewer: IAN FRASER
Sue Taylor first came to our attention in 2001 with her somewhat quirky and well-received How Many Birds is That?, the account of how an enthusiastic but relatively novice Victorian birder and her tolerant husband set out to bring her life total to 600 Australian species. To add to the air of mystery surrounding its success is the fact that the book was published before she'd achieved her goal, something I never did really understand. Nonetheless it was written cheerfully, briskly and self-deprecatingly, and appealed to many travellers and birders - and we are many! I certainly enjoyed it. It was followed in 2005 by Why Watch Birds?, a beginner's guide, and Radio National started going to her for comment pieces.
Then nothing until now. I guess she's been busy birding.
This is a big, lush, weighty book, based on a selection of the superb paintings that illustrated John Gould's magnificent 1848 seven-volume blockbuster, The Birds of Australia. The National Library of Australia has already generously made them available to us online, and their beauty, delicacy and power is remarkable.
Probably wisely there is no attempt here to reiterate the considerable amount of recently published information on Gould himself, such as the NLA's The Business of Nature: John Gould and Australia, by Roslyn Russell.
This is a very different book from Taylor's previous ones. It's about birds, but there's not much other similarity, and in particular there's very little of Taylor in it, which I regret. She must have spent time with most of these birds but she doesn't bring to the book the immediacy and passion that such experiences engender. In particular I don't really understand how one can write dispassionately about animals one knows which have been driven to the edge - and in some cases over the edge - of extinction. Further, there is no explanation as to what she was trying to achieve, so it's hard to judge how successful she's been.
Enough of my reservations though, because this really is a beautiful book, as anything based on the Gould paintings is going to be. A lot of work has gone into it, based mostly on Gould's own writings and Birds Australia's most recent action plan for Australian Birds. It is thorough and workmanlike; for each species (or sub-species in several cases) we have a full-page painting followed by a page distilled from Gould's own accounts, which often include the all-important personal experiences and perceptions. On the beautiful purple-crowned fairy wren he writes: ''Charming as are many of the smaller Australian birds, I think the present species is entitled to the palm for elegance and beauty.''
In discussing the yellow-tufted honeyeater he refers to the genus in which he placed it by saying ''the members of which are nearly as numerous as the various Eucalypti, upon the flowers of which they mainly subsist, and with which their yellow ear-tufts vie in beauty of colouring''. (I need to point out a certain uncharacteristic hyperbole here; today we recognise some 800 eucalypts, and about 20 of this genus of honeyeaters. Hyperbole is okay in its place, though, and we are fortunate that Gould sometimes allowed his excitement to shine through.) Then another two pages of dispassionate, brief but accurate entries on the name meaning, description, habits, habitat, diet and breeding, and a summary of how we brought the bird to its current sad situation.
One such sad situation is that of the regent honeyeater, a spectacularly gold and black mottled aberrant wattlebird, which Gould described as meeting ''in great abundance''.
As Taylor sadly observes, ''today the population of the lively, once-abundant honeyeater has dwindled to some 350 adults in total''. Although she does not say so, this is despite a very intensive and ongoing program of monitoring, study and habitat regeneration in former strongholds such as the Capertee Valley.
Can this book assist in further education to halt and even reverse such declines? I assume that this is at least one of Taylor's unstated goals. That question is unanswerable, but while the information is put to the fore in such an accessible and attractive (and, as it must always be said of NLA productions, affordable) format, there is no refuge for us in a plea of ignorance.
Ian Fraser is a local naturalist, broadcaster, natural history blogger and author, whose most recent book is A Bush Capital Year.