Saul Cunningham: Welcome everybody today, to the National Library of Australia. Welcome, those of you who are in the room, but we’ve also got people watching us online, as we do with these things nowadays. So welcome to the people online also. And we’re all here, of course, to launch this wonderful new book by Professor Libby Robin
So as we begin, I’d like to acknowledge Australia’s First Nations peoples, the first Australians, the Traditional Owners and custodians of this land, give my respects to the Elders past and present, and through them all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. and I particularly pay respect to any First Nations people who are in the audience, and note that we’re actually in Reconciliation Week this week. And let’s hope that reconciliation goes beyond this week. It’s a pretty significant year for reconciliation in Australia. And if we get it right, it’ll be a year that goes down in history. So that’s something for us to think about today.
So my name is Saul Cunningham. I’m the director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, where Libby is emeritus professor. And the Fenner school is also excited to be co-hosting this event today with the National Library.
So Libby has played a really important role in the history of that school, both as a member of the school, she’s a member of the school for the whole 15 years that it has existed. But she’s also been someone who’s helped us understand that school’s place in the history of environment studies, both in Australia and around the world. I think you can’t stop Libby being a historian for wherever she may be. And that’s been really powerful for me actually, to have access to Libby’s knowledge of the school’s history.
So the Fenner School, as I said, it’s 15 years old, and it carries on an innovation that began at the ANU with the great Frank Fenner 50 years ago, who recognised, after years of obviously a very significant period as a medical researcher, that in fact, it was time to devote more attention to environment research. And further, he recognised that if we’re going to be solving environmental problems, that required input from people coming from different disciplines.
So while that centre created, the centre that he created, that was called the Centre for Resource Environmental Studies, employed your sort of more predictable hard science people, including ornithologists, some of which are certainly in the book, and some of which we might talk about today, it also employed people from lots of other different disciplinary backgrounds, including the humanities. Hence Libby.
So when you read this book, you’ll see how Libby uses the tools of a historian to better understand science, how science works, and how people understand the environment issues. Those themes you’ll find in all of Levy’s writings, I think, but this one again.
One of Libby’s books from 2009 was Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, which she wrote with the Fenner School’s Professor Rob Heinsohn, an ornithologist, and today’s other guest, Dr Leo Joseph. So Leo is an eminent Australian ornithologist, a birdo, I reckon, and the Director of the National Wildlife Collection in CSIRO, here in Canberra. And I think you’re going to learn more about both Libby and Leo, when they begin their conversation in a moment.
But before we go there, I’d like to say a thing or two about this book, which I very much enjoyed reading over the last couple of weeks. So for starters, what a fantastic title. I understand that we have Tom Griffiths, another great historian to thank for that title. But all credits Libby, for recognising what a good idea it was, and then delivering on the promise that the title makes to us.
It immediately sets up the idea that with this field guide, we’ll be able to recognise the different kinds of birdos, perhaps by their markings, perhaps by the habitat that they prefer to be in, or perhaps by their distinctive voice. And then by organising them, we might understand how they relate to one another. What are the major groupings? And how might understanding these relationships deepen our understanding of where they fit in their environment?
So I was keen to learn all this, although I was very firmly of the view that I am not a birdo. I don’t call myself a birdo. and I say this because I know people who really are birdos. They’re people who recognise calls. They recognise the dialect difference between calls. I know people who will happily drive for days, because a bird has shown – a bird of interest has showing up somewhere.
And in fact, my old high school science teacher, Greg Hunt, saw the ad for this event, and that I was going to be involved, and he sent me a text message saying that he is about to go chasing a Star Finch in Lakefield National Park in far north Queensland, which will be in excess of a 3,000 kilometre drive, if he goes in a straight line – I can bet he won’t – from his home In Melbourne. I wish him luck.
So he is an archetypal example of that one particular kind of birdo, which we learn of in this book, the serious amateur. They’re the people that are at the very highest levels in terms of birding skill and knowledge, but they’re not birding for their salary. You could be a school teacher like Greg is, or an accountant. I met some accountant bird watchers last week. You could be a librarian, you could be anything.
Also in my life, making me feel like I’m not exactly one of them, are the professional bird watchers. So they’re people who actually are paid to work on birds. The Fenners School has a group of researchers that call themselves the Difficult Birds Research Group. So named because they specialise in studying the biology of birds that are really hard to study, like Swift Parrots that fly enormous distances and live in the tops of very tall trees, which they then have to climb to access the nests of. Or like Regent Honeyeaters, that also move around the landscape over great lengths and hard to observe.
So these kinds of people are birdos, they’re professional birdos, and they have incredible deep understanding of the biology of those birds. But they don’t necessarily have the skills that the serious amateur brings. And here is one of these Difficult Bird Research Group people walking in the door right now.
So I’m not the gifted amateur. I’m not the professional bird watcher, professional ornithologist. I have binoculars and a few bird guides. But I don’t have their skills. And I don’t even, I don’t come close. I’m sympathetic to the phrase that Libby taught me in this book, which credited Donald McDonald, which is, “I’m nothing more than a bush loafer.” I thought that was a great line.
So in spite of this, as I read Libby’s book, I came across countless elements that in fact, were part of my own experience. My family carried the Gould League field guides, arranged by habitat and fantastically illustrated. At 10 years old, I was a member of the Hawthorn Junior Field Naturalists Club, which made a place in the book. When I was a student at Monash University, I got lectures from Pat Vickers-Rich, who appears in the book. I would drink at the Notting Hill Hotel, and behind the bar at the Notting Hill Hotel is a picture with a one armed birdo, Jock Marshall, who plays a role in the book.
I too, worked at CSIRO, like Leo, and I relish the tradition of the CDK, or Chief Doesn’t Know, project. And then at the ANU, I came to know the great Henry Nix, who appears in the book, and Henry passed away in 2022. So all these people and places are in the book, and they’re importance is put in context. And I’m sure when you read the book, any of you that have any sort of connection to an interest in nature, you’ll find elements of your own life placed in this book, too.
So as the narrative progresses, I began to change my perspective. Not only does Libby highlight the role of serious amateurs. as distinct from these professional researchers. She highlights the professional researchers and the occasional birdos; the citizen scientists, the newsletter editors, the school kids, the club organisers, the record keepers, and occasional politician. All of these kinds of people are important to the development of ornithology in Australia, even if, like me, they might struggle to distinguish a crow from a raven.
So in fact, as the story progresses, I began to realise that I was wrong to resist calling myself a birdo, despite my protestation; I am a birdo, and maybe one of the messages in this book is that deep down we all might be birdos, whether we have discovered that or not. So I want to thank you Libby for teaching me that.
So with that, I throw to Libby and Leo to be in conversation with us.
Libby Robin: Thank you so much, Saul. That was just great, great words, and it’s lovely to see all these people from Canberra here, and hello to the people on Zoom. I appreciate some of you can’t be in Canberra. But it’s a book that has grown out of my years in Canberra in lots of ways, but has kept growing. So I’ve been now living in Victoria for five years. And if you look carefully at the dedication into this book, no one is excluded from being a birdo. The dedicatees haven’t yet turned two; they’re my two little grandchildren. And they notice birds. “Bird, bird.” They see nature through birds.
And I guess that – no one should say they’re not a birdo. But lots of people want to say that you’re only a birdo if you do X or Y, and I guess this book subverts that idea, because birds are a fantastic way to understand our place in nature. And that’s really what this is about. And I’m certainly not a birdo. I can’t use binoculars yet. I’ve been trying all my life, and I still can’t make them work for me. So I am not a birdo that means; but I am a birdo, because I write about birdos and I watch birdos. I watch the people who watch the birds.
Now, the other thing that’s in the title, as well as the reference to Neville Cayley’s book is the which – by the way, Penny Olsen’s up the back. She’s written a great book about the Cayleys, if you want to hear more about the Cayleys. The birdo is a special Australian word. So you don’t put ‘Australia’ in the title of books these days. But you can slip in a word like ‘birdo,’ because people don’t realise that you’re actually making, centralising the people from this place, who think of themselves as birdos, or think of other people as birdos.
So it’s about people and birds together, and what they can do locally and globally, for the great crises of our times. And I thought most people who are very serious about birds, or who hardly know they know anything about birds, have a story from their childhood. So I’m going to start with a short reading from my childhood.
In my family, ornithology meant Lyrebirds. Not long before I started school, we moved to the market town of Croydon, then just beyond the fringes of suburban Melbourne. Dad and I would rise at 5:00 am, long before dawn, and creep around a chilly and dripping Sherbrooke Forest, with sticky black soil clinging to our hands and knees.
Ornithology meant being quiet, listening, searching for Spotty. I could never quite work out how my father knew which of the birds was Spotty, except that we seemed to follow the loudest and clearest calls. Usually we would find him in a clearing, foraging in deep leaf mould with his long feet. Sometimes if we were really lucky, he’d throw his long tail over his head and dance. My father, like so many enthusiasts before and since, never tired of the antics of the Lyrebird, Menura novaehollandiae for the learned around here.
He never noticed if the day was cold or wet. The fascination of this bird for him, was it’s almost human personality. With its large, bright eyes adapted for dark forest life, and teasing calls, a master of mimicry and ventriloquism, Spotty lured us into thinking like a bird. If we could wriggle into a position where we could watch for a sustained period, we could observe the tricks of his trade. He would be here, but his call was over there. Whose call? My favourite was his Eastern Whip Bird imitation. But it could equally have been a Bell Minor, or one of the many scratchy little calls of as yet identified little brown jobs. That’s a technical term in ornithology by the way.
Spotty was an ornithological schoolmaster. As he worked through his mellow repertoire, Dad would whisper to me the names of the birds Spotty was imitating. The sounds were not all bird calls. He did a splendid breaking twig too, possibly the noise he associated with us.
So I first met Leo, in 1999, at the centenary of the South Australian Ornithological Association, where Leo was a very lively after dinner speaker. And he was a historian of that organisation because he’d known the old timers since he was young. Do you want to tell us about how you got into birding, Leo?
Leo Joseph: Yes, yes, well, I was on a train going from Adelaide to the metropolis of Tailem Bend up near Murray Bridge, and I saw a colourful parrot. And I said to my sister – I was at the tender age of 10 – and I said to my sister, “What was that?” and she said “Oh, that’s a Rosella.” And for next few years, I kind of just would look twice at Rosellas around Adelaide. And living here in Canberra, you’ll be familiar with the Crimson and Eastern Rosellas, and the Adelaide Rosella is related to Crimsons in particular.
And a few years went by, and I was here in Canberra, actually, on a family holiday, and I saw Joe Forshaw’s book, Australian Parrots. And this was like a gold mine. There between two covers of one book, were all the Australian parrots laid out. And so by this time I’d ripened to the age of 13 or something, and I got hold of that book and I devoured it. I just devoured it. And that kindled an interest in evolution, because there were all the Rosellas, all the Black Cockatoos, all this, all that, laid out between the covers of that book. And the I became interested in evolution from then onwards.
And then I joined the South Australian Ornithological Association in ‘71. And once you meet other people, you’re doomed. You know, that’s it. Because we would then go out on weekends, long weekends, on Sundays, in school holidays, university holidays, racing around the countryside, digging into the knowledge of birds, and just laying the foundations for what’s become my life.
Libby Robin: And it’s kept your enthusiasm going.
Leo Joseph: Oh yes.
Libby Robin: It’s not – I haven’t yet talked to a scientist who works with birds who doesn’t love them. And that’s really interesting. That passion is actually the important thing that makes the science work. But it doesn’t very often get talked about; everybody gets very formal about – you know. So I’ll try not to go too far into the category of the birdos, because actually it’s been very blurred. People are two or three things at once. One of the things that’s really interesting, is since that dinner in 1999, which was a very –
Leo Joseph: Where was it? At the Grosvenor, was it?
Libby Robin: I think it was it a – well, it was a posh hotel in Adelaide, that’s all I knew.
Leo Joseph: Yes, the Grosvenor.
Libby Robin: And they had fantastic wine. It was Barbara Hardy was one of the sponsors of the event. So we had fantastic wine.
Leo Joseph: Say no more.
Libby Robin: But you were you were really, you were young Turk in an organisation of older people. And I think the fact that you were carrying on the banner, was very important for them.
Leo Joseph: Yeah, well, South Australia had a long history of really professionally minded amateur ornithologists. And starting from the White family, who lived down near the present day Adelaide Airport, and the old house is still there at Wittunga.
Libby Robin: This is Captain White, not be confused with HL White, who’s very important too.
Leo Joseph: Not to be confused, yes. And then Mellor and all these guys. And yeah, and there was – I had a group of friends much the same vintage as me. Julian Reid, Roger [Jaensch 00:17:18], Nick Reid. We’ve all made our careers out of birds, or natural history somehow.
Libby Robin: And Julian did his PhD with the Fenner School too, so there’s another connection.
Leo Joseph: Yeah, yeah.
Libby Robin: Yes. So what sorts of things do you see having changed in the last – since 1999?
Leo Joseph: Since 1999? Well, yeah, I think a major thing happened in 1999. My predecessor at the Australian National Wildlife Collection, who was also a previous Adelaidean, Richard Shoddy, he and Ian Mason published a giant book called the Directory of Australian Birds. And that was the first volume, and it covered all the passerine birds, all the bush birds. And I think that, again, laying out between two covers, their treatment, their interpretation of every passerine bird in Australia, including a map showing where each subspecies occurred, or their interpretation of that, I think that triggered, or helped trigger, a real resurgence in interest in birdwatchers; birders; birdos, in the variation that’s present in each of the species we have.
And another thing happened, of course, is the online world. And so, for the last 20 years or so, we’ve had this revolution in the way people can record their observations online, see what other people have been seeing. Getting around more; mobility has changed a lot. And there’s more things for people to go out and see by way of subspecies and so on. And so there’s this real –
Saul Cunningham: If I can interrupt? For years, I would read those bird guide descriptions of what a call is supposed to be; ‘tisk, tisk, tisk’ or something like that. And it never made sense to me. Now you can get an app that just plays it for you. And that’s huge breakthrough.
Leo Joseph: Yeah, yeah. So that’s a huge part of the online change. So massive changes since 1999.
Libby Robin: I’m interested in the changes since 1999 too, but I think that they’re more about – I think there was a lot of chasing rarities, has been something that goes back to the 19th century. But there is a much more awareness of local knowledge in the 21st century. That people are more anxious about things that are arriving in the garden that they don’t want, that they’ve got too many of, or ones that they used to love who aren’t there anymore. So that there’s those sort of changes. And I think that what we call living in the Anthropocene, is something that actually can be filtered quite clearly through birds. And there’s lots of stories about that coming in here.
But the other thing you picked up on Leo is, what can you put between two covers of a book. Now, one of the things that I think we forget sometimes is, and this Library is a great place to remember, is what happens between the covers of a book is very exciting for many of us who can’t get out in the field. And you can travel with a book in a way you perhaps don’t travel when you’re online. You tend to hunt particular pieces of information. Where with a book, you get lost, and you can read it in the bath and things like that. So these are important details.
So I think that the – and the National Library has been incredibly important to this book. I’ve been reading things in this National Library for a very long time. And it’s one of the best book collections, particularly for Australian books, anywhere in the world. And arguably the best library for Australian bird books. Because Gregory Matthews left this amazing collection of books to the Library in 1948. And the Library has pretty much honoured its legacy as a bird loving Library, through putting lots of more books in about – and also photographs and other digital media and so forth. It’s not all books, but I like the books. So I’m just going to talk about books, because that’s what I do.
But it’s interesting that the armchair traveller is still important. So you find the app helpful, for listening?
Saul Cunningham: It does something that I could never do before, which is – yeah, increase –
Libby Robin: Yes, well, I found which writers made the sounds that I could understand.
Saul Cunningham: Right.
Libby Robin: But that’s the left/right brain that I have. I tend to read things, rather than here. But that’s terrible when you’re out birding, because you don’t know. And yes, I did find an app the other day for a Red Warbler, because I thought there was one calling, and it was. I was very pleased with myself. I managed to do that in the field. So that’s just a bit of googling, not any special knowledge.
So bird tourism, Leo, that’s a big exploding part of the what’s happening. People are going to more and more remote places in more and more ways.
Leo Joseph: And in more and more numbers. Yeah.
Libby Robin: And what do you think about that?
Leo Joseph: Oh, well, overall, I hope it’s a good thing. There is a risk that you can overdo it, and too many people playing too many apps to a particular bird can stress the bird out. And of course, people will go online, and they will see – well, myself included – you’ll see where someone else has just seen a bird, so you go there. So there’s this tendency that’s increasing to go back to particular spots, and therefore particular individuals, and risk stressing them.
Libby Robin: But we don’t have the problems like they do in Britain, where you go down a narrow lane in Cornwall, and people are up ladders to see over the other people to see the bird.
Leo Joseph: I don’t think we’re far from it.
Libby Robin: Really?
Leo Joseph: I think we’re heading down that that way. I mean, sure, we’ve got a bigger piece of real estate and so on. But I think in some cases, we might be risking that. So people have to be well informed, and care about the birds that give them so much pleasure – give me so much pleasure.
Libby Robin: And a lot of the bird tourists to have a good guide who can help with that.
Leo Joseph: There’s an interesting change, yeah. I used to find that, back in the day when I was younger, you’d run into some other bird watchers, and you’d have quite a collegial discussion about what you’re seeing, and exchange information. These daysI find when I run into bird watchers, they’re often with a guide, who is very proprietary about – who doesn’t want to give away any information, because I’m not paying for it. So the idea of saying, “Oh, how are you? What have you seen this morning?” you get a really dirty look. And that’s real change.
Libby Robin: And the guide could have got a whole lot of information from Leo if he’d thought about it.
Leo Joseph: Oh, maybe. But yes, that’s an interesting change. Just recently up in Darwin, I ran into a fellow birdwatcher one morning, and rather a much older person. and I said, “Well, I might walk along with you for a while.” And maybe I shouldn’t have said that, but I did. She said “I’d prefer that you didn’t.” I thought OK, fair enough, fair enough. Maybe I’ve crossed a line I shouldn’t have crossed, and should have known better.
Libby Robin: But one of the interesting things is when I started looking at the history of birding, I started with the institutions, because that’s where the records are. And so you do look at clubs, and the South Australian Ornithological Association was one of the – well, it was the earliest club in Australia.
Leo Joseph: Yes, it was.
Libby Robin: So I started there, which one does. But what I realised after a while, was that there were another whole tranche of birdos, who didn’t like clubs. Edward Selous is a good example of this. He wrote a book called Bird Watching in 1900. And he basically was writing about watching, rather than shooting birds, because his brother wrote books about hunting an empire. So he was, it was a protest to his brother. And he wrote about observation, and about the behaviour of birds, and how they know where each other are in the flight path. So how do you see those geese flying in a V? How do they know where the others are? And the sort of the psychology of that sort of thing.
I found his writings very interesting. And I thought – he wouldn’t touch any of the clubs in Britain. But a lot of British people from the clubs regarded birdwatching as he was the originator. Meanwhile, in Australia, we actually had people who were doing a similar sort of thing, exactly like the guy you mentioned, he was a bush loafer. And he was also not joining clubs in order to see birds. He was just out in the bush. He had a little hut in a remote place with – they were a dentist and a ... anyway, they were people who were not traditional birders, but they went out there to relax. And they called themselves the Woodlanders. And they had all sorts of references to Thoreau, for those who are interested in literary references.
So they were doing that at the same time. So people have different ways; some people are really interested in annual general meetings, and other people are really not. That’s the sort of – there is a distinction there.
Leo Joseph: But maybe it speaks to something that’s very deep inside, or was, and that is that connection with the natural world. And it manifests in different ways in different people, because people, some are a bit more social than others, some are more introverted, like to be alone. But the commonality , the common thread, I think, as I was listening to you describe that, is that it’s very deep inside us all. We can deny it, but you’re not going to win denying it. It’s very deep, inside us all.
Libby Robin: And the other thing is that the bird is a vehicle for the imagination to go to the sky, and not just the land. To go out to sea, the mad pelagic birdwatchers, and to redefine the edges of Australia, because the bird has to be in the edges to be an Australian bird. And they get a tick out in the middle of nowhere. And that’s a sort of a prize. It’s a different sort of prize from the old days of shooting the bird. It’s a different prize from taking a photograph of it. But it’s a tick on a life list. And there’s some people who keep life lists, and some people who don’t. Do you keep a life list, Leo?
Leo Joseph: I don’t.
Libby Robin: No, there you go.
Leo Joseph: But I kind of know what I haven’t seen, that I want to see.
Libby Robin: And you kind of know exactly where it fits on an evolutionary tree, too.
Saul Cunningham: You’re just too embarrassed to write it down?
Leo Joseph: No, no, I just didn’t never had that – it wasn’t my driving force.
Libby Robin: You didn’t collect stamps, either?
Leo Joseph: I did as a young lad, no, I did.
Libby Robin: There you go.
Leo Joseph: But birds took over. No, I was a bit put off, to a point, by people who were driven just by seeing a bird once, and then moving on. I kind of understood it, because I love seeing a bird for the first time, and I love seeing a bird I haven’t seen for a long time, and I like to see a rare bird like anyone else. But I think – I was going to say I was saved. I think being interested in evolution from so early on, provided me with a different perspective that balanced that, and I think, kept it in check. Because sooner or later they all – a lot of them burn out, and then they go off and look at dragonflies, because they’ve seen as many birds as they can in Australia. Which Australia has incredibly different birds, but not as many as say South America and so on.
So I think being interested in evolution, or in my case it was evolution, helped me balance that desire and keep it in check, and help me come back to the birds, and look for more in the birds. Not just say I’ve hunted it. And that’s it.
Libby Robin: Yes, my mother and I were at a Wimpy’s Little Desert Lodge in North Western Victoria. And there was a large group of American birders ticking off their lists for the day, and they had their heads down. And Mum said “Oh, there’s an interesting bird out there.” It was an Australian Bittern, and it had come in because there was one in captivity in there, and it was calling to it. And they didn’t have it on their list, I don’t think. But they weren’t going to get up from their list, and they just kept ticking. Mum was tiny and spoke like a 90 something year old, and so nobody took any notice of her. But actually she did notice it. Something to be said for that.
Leo Joseph: The flip side of that; an anecdote I have from the North Flinders Ranges. An RAOU camp out, the national organisation that –
Libby Robin: The Royal Australasian Ornithologist Union.
Leo Joseph: Correct. So we had the annual camp was there in 1977. And the list for the spot had a bird that had been recorded there once. And there was a person who saw that bird before dinner on the first day. And, of course, she misidentified a Restless Flycatcher. But she was determined to see it, because it was on the list.
Libby Robin: She had to tick everything on that list.
Leo Joseph: Yeah. Anyway, but you know ...
Libby Robin: But we all have a reason to travel, and different reasons to travel, and a bird’s a good reason to travel. Maybe it’s good if some of them give up on birds and look at bees.
Saul Cunningham: Yeah, well, as someone who actually works on bees, in the same way that I have formally not call myself a birdo, I’m one of those people that I get embarrassed if people ask me to identify that bee, because it’s really hard. And normally I’m not so great.
Libby Robin: You’re probably better at the birds.
Saul Cunningham: Probably.
Libby Robin: Because they’re bigger, and everybody’s been talking about them. Yes. Well, when we arrived today, Bernadette tells us it’s World Parrot Day. So this is a very good day for this launch. And we’ve got a national parrot expert in the audience here, Rob Heinsohn. And we’ve had a parrot story from you.
But the other thing that’s coming up this week is World Environment Day, which is on Monday. And I’m really interested in what birds can tell us about the environment, and that idea that you think globally, and act locally. I think the birds are very good at helping us act locally. That’s probably, if there’s a message in this book – I don’t particularly like that term – but that would be the sort of thing that everybody can notice things locally, that might matter.
And one of the problems about being in a world where climate change is rapidly accelerating and things all seem too big, one doesn’t feel like you can make a difference. This is a way you can make a difference. And it’s fun, and it’s positive. And I think we need a few glass half full stories around the environment for World Environment Day. And I hope this book is good for that.
So I’m thinking since that we’re in Canberra, and I know that there are people here who are global experts on various birds, but probably even more of you are local experts on Canberra. So I thought I might pick up a few stories about Canberra. Now, I’ve got a – I know, I put my notes on the back of the piece of paper. That’s where they are.
I’ll start with mist netting. Some of Australia’s earliest mist netting was carried out in the Brindabella mountains near Canberra. Mist netting is particularly suited to smaller forest birds and bats. It uses fine, nearly invisible nets, typically made of nylon or polyester mesh, suspended between two poles, resembling a volleyball net, to trap birds for research without injuring them.
Steve Wilson, some of you will probably know, was the indefatigable bird bander and bird enthusiast, who led the Australian Capital Territory team. From April 1961 until May 1982, he conducted 292 trips to the Brindabellas, just about every possible weekend, that is. And he had banding sites in New Chums Road. An apt name for a place where new chum banders, some still high school students, learnt their craft.
Before mist nests, Cuckoos and Swifts been regarded as untrackable. In 1964, Wilson, and Bill Lane, another famous bander, joined forces with John McKean from CSIRO, to write a practical handbook on the use of mist nets in Australia, in the hope that others would try it.
In 1970, the Australian Capital Territory banders became the Canberra Ornithologists Group; COG. And subsequently led much of the fieldwork for the International Ornithological Congress in 1974. The mist nets were also used in South Australia, of course, and one of the lovely stories is about Joan Paton, who took out a bird banding licence, because her son, who was 10, was too young to take out such a licence. And he’s David Paton, and he’s one of the great woodland birds specialists in Australia now, and runs a reserve in the Adelaide Hills called Bio·R.
So that’s – I’ll just keep going with Canberra though. I’m skipping around a bit, but I think I can hold it together.
The decision to bring the 16th International Ornithological Congress – that’s the IOC from here on – to bring it to Canberra in 1974, was not taken lightly. IOCs had begun in 1884, and had been held every four years since, except during major wars and international crises. They’d always been held in Europe, except for one in upstate New York. But there was a dearth of alternative offers in 1970, strangely, when the IOC met for a 15th time the Hague. Jean Dorst, who was the French President at the time, welcomed the invitation from Harry Frith, who was Australia’s IOC General Secretary.
In spite of the difficulties of a congress held far away from their home country, is what John Dorst said, such Eurocentrism was met with impatience by Frith, a veteran of past IOCs, who was quick to point out that southern hemisphere ornithologists had borne the expense and difficulty of attending all the previous international congresses. They had a wonderful feisty correspondence, which I enjoyed so much, always in English, Jean Dorst kindly wrote in English, or sort of Frenglish, and Harry never touched French.
Now I’m going to keep going here, I’ve got just a couple of – I’m skipping over bits, but I think I can keep the thread going.
As it turned out, the unexpected complications of transport strikes and other extraneous pressures, meant that only an organisation the size of CSIRO, with offices in places like Alice Springs and Perth, could have rescued the Congress. These were the young team which kept an everlasting smile all along the week. There was also a lad ies program, led by the able and hardworking Dorothy Frith, Daphne [Fulliger 00:38:14], And [Jo Callaby 00:38:14]. The ornithologists were generally men, even if the women did identify as birdos, I suspect.
Canberra was under scrutiny, and Canberra families were proud of their still new city. In his bid, Frith described it cautiously as a planned and hence artificial city. “Most people think it and its setting beautiful,” he said. “Some believe that it has everything but a soul.” You get a sense of humour here; it’s very dry.
Canberra’s strongest claim for this particular Congress was it’s wonderful bird life, and this is what Harry wrote; “The city, being at the bottom end of an altitudinal migration, it teems with birds in August. You can see 100 or more Cockatoos on the city lawns, King Parrots in your garden, and numerous passerines in the city streets. Lyrebirds and Bowerbirds are 20 miles away. Honeyeaters abound close to the Congress site.”
Frith’s tone is a bit defensive, slightly apologetic, about the claims of the university. “The Australian National University is new. Some of the buildings of the Congress are not yet built.” He was making this case in 1970, for 1974. “It has neither the charm of Oxford, the elegance of the Hague Congress Centre, nor the opulence of Cornell. However, it has everything the average Congress goers need, especially if they’re familiar with young countries, and with simple efficiency.”
Leo Joseph: He was a good marketer, because he was appealing to the northern hemisphere academics on their summer, on their summer break to come down here. He was full of marketing pitches.
Libby Robin: Absolutely, yes. I think he didn’t have such a tough time, because I discovered afterwards, there were no other bids for this IOC. And I’m quite sure they would never, they would never have come to Australia. There had been a bit of a crash in funding in various places at that time.
Anyway, young volunteers from the ANU, in fact, became essential to the success of the conference, the Congress. The Congress itself inspired new directions in their future careers. So this Congress in 1974, is still having ramifications today. Mike Fleming, for example, made his career as a Parks and Wildlife officer. He was one of the three or four undergraduate members of the ANU Biological Society, who assisted the Congress with field excursions.
It opened my eyes for the first time to the fact that ornithology is an international thing, and that there were these people who were passionate about not only their own areas, but who could come to Australia and be equally passionate about seeing birds.
He made some interesting contacts, but he also made a connection between his childhood passion for birds, and his new university science. Penny Olsen, then a junior CSIRO wildlife officer working on Water Rats, Rakali, now a Serventy medallist, a raptor specialist, and a natural history writer, declared “It made me an ornithologist.”
Leo Joseph: I’ve got a little story from that time, too. So Charles Sibley was one of the big North American names who came out for the Congress. And he was revolutionising understanding of relationships among different groups at birth. And recounting my life here, I’d reached the real age of 16, by then. And he, Sibley came through Adelaide and gave an evening lecture at the University of Adelaide on some of the work he was doing. I remember my mother and I went along, and I couldn’t make it to the Congress, sadly, but I had a taste of the Congress in Adelaide, yes.
Libby Robin: He was the egg white protein, he was a chemist, yes.
Leo Joseph: Egg white protein at that point, he was just thinking about DNA.
Libby Robin: Amazing. It was really the very beginning of that, wasn’t it? He was really early, yes. So there were a lot of challenges about running this Congress in Canberra. First of all, it was August, it had to be northern hemisphere holidays. And then it was 1974, which was kind of bad luck. In addition to the other problems, Frith had a terrible car accident in December 1973, and he was in hospital for two months, all of December and all of January. And this huge pile of correspondence came in. And Jan Finley, his secretary, answered it all, sorted it out, kept it all moving. That was when CSRO was really, really important, because they had paid staff, and most of the other –
Leo Joseph: We’re still important.
Libby Robin: Yes – no, but –
Saul Cunningham: They still have some paid staff too, right?
Libby Robin: There’s always a paid staffer.
Leo Joseph: I couldn’t help it, it was there for the taking.
Libby Robin: Yeah, OK, OK. Fair game. But the point was that the Ornithological Associations tended to go to the RAOU, or to those sort of things. And actually, there’s no paid staff at the RAOU, they couldn’t have done it. But the other problems with 1974, this was coming just after the oil shocks. So there was petrol shortages and rationing. Pilot strikes, so people got stuck. So I’ve just got one last little section about how CSIRO was very important to this Congress, and how it worked really well, despite everything.
Delegates on their way to the Congress were stranded by last minute transport workers’ strike within Australia. Many who travelled early to see more of Australia while they were in the country, were caught out. The French President, Jean Dorst himself, was stranded in Perth, along with others on an outback excursion. Dennis Saunders, who was acting Officer in Chief of the CSIRO Perth lab at the time, came to Canberra later, managed to charter to light planes using his personal contacts. His father was in the aviation industry.
Dorst, Serventy and 12 other stranded delegates made it from Perth to Canberra, but eight hours late for the opening on Monday. So they moved all proceedings from Monday to Tuesday. And then they turned, and looked at the other problems they had , which was another group was stuck at Alice Springs. And again, the local CSIRO wildlife team, Colin Lenden, Bill Lowe, and Laurie Corbett, rallied and entertained them with an impromptu additional tour of their district, while they were waiting their connections. The Alice Springs delegates finally arrived in good spirits at 11:00 pm on the Monday night, and were met by Harry Frith himself, who had arranged a late dinner for them.
But of course, a few of them made it on time. So then you had to do something with all these people whose program wasn’t there. So a busload of ornithologists went birding at Nanima near Yass that afternoon at very short notice, and had a great time. Canberra scientist, Henry Nix, who Saul mentioned, was returning from to the Congress from a seven week consultancy in Kenya, and ended up stranded in Mauritius with many of the Southern African participants for this conference. Qantas found a lateral solution to the strike, and they flew to Singapore to refuel, then to Perth and Sydney. But then there was no transport from Sydney to Canberra.
The travellers from Africa eventually arrived late on Sunday night in a VW Kombi van rented from an enterprising entrepreneur at Sydney Airport. Packed with jetlagged Southern Africans, the elderly bus had encountered the aftermath of a major accident on the motor racing circuit, and the worst traffic jam ever seen between Sydney and Canberra. The four hour trip took eight hours.
So Frith was fairly desperate with was what was going on. And he sent telegrams to Bob Hawke, who was then the President of the ACTU, and to Clive Cameron, who was the Minister for Labour. This is what they said.
“800 scientists from all over the world will attend the 16th International Ornithological Congress in Canberra, 12 to 17 August. If they have to live in unheated rooms and lecture theatres, and there’s no petrol for field inspections, Australia will look poor in the eyes of the world. I would appreciate any help you could give.” He writes a nice telegram, doesn’t he?
He also spent sent a special request for oil to the ANU, to Gordon Bryant, the Minister for the Capital Territory. These last minute machinations worked. No one complained of the cold in the conference facilities, despite the fact it was a bitter week. Snow fell on the field excursions near Canberra, but the international birdos had a great time.
Saul Cunningham: Well, that was a wonderful story, Libby. And I can see the microphones have come down on the sides of our audience. So we’ve got 15 minutes now for questions from the audience. Please don’t speak until the microphone makes it to you, so that we can include our Zoom listeners. And if you put your hand up or stand up, a microphone will approach.
So while you contemplate what your question might be, I’m going to get things going. And of course, you might have questions for Libby or Leo here. But I’m going to ask one more of you Libby, which is maybe in the theme of being here in the National Library. With all the research you did, you’ve made reference to various documents that are here, and letters and things that you found, what was the resource that was most surprising or exciting for you to dig up in the process of putting this book together?
Libby Robin: Well, the letters between Frith and Dorst were pretty amazing.
Saul Cunningham: Yes, they sound pretty great.
Libby Robin: They were in the bowels of the Marshall Embassy, in a box that hadn’t been labelled. And somebody came across them, and that was incredibly – the archives of the Academy of Science turned out to be very important.
Saul Cunningham: Fantastic.
Libby Robin: I was also going to quickly ask Leo about what’s next for Canberra. You’ve got a new building, I think?
Leo Joseph: We do. The Australian National Insect Collection and the Australian National Wildlife Collection are soon to move into a new building that’s that’s going up on Black Mountain now. If you’ve been along Barrier Drive lately, you will have seen a giant crane. And that’s associated with the building that’s rising out of the ground. And we will probably spend most of next year moving our collections in, and it’s an exciting time for, for securing these collections into the future and what they have to offer.
Libby Robin: And it’s taken seven years for the building to go up, so it’s a big deal.
Leo Joseph: Well, yes, these things don’t happen overnight. Yes. Can I just acknowledge Joan Paton? You mentioned Joan Paton. She was an amazing teacher. And her son David Paton is who you were referring to there, a well known ecologist. But Joan was one of quite a few women in my early ornithological days, be they specifically bird people, or genetics teachers, who taught me a lot about birds and genetics and stuff. And Joan was just fantastic. She was an amazing teacher. People to this day, still talk about the courses she ran, the week night courses in bird study and stuff. She was the gold mark.
Libby Robin: And she enrolled all the people who were in those courses in the South Australian Ornithological Association. So she actually mad e the crossovers, which was, I think, really interesting, yes.
Saul Cunningham: So there must be a question from our audience. Is that a hand going up right here?
Libby Robin: That’s a Max Bourke hand.
Question: Thanks, Libby and Leo. I’ve found birding a really wonderful example. And I wonder if you treat this in the book – because I haven’t read it yet, but I will – and that is the way in which capitalism has a fantastic ability to plug into whatever activity that humans get engaged in. And it is nowhere better exemplified than birding, and photography, and binoculars and scopes. Where these days, the birdos that you run into occasionally in the bush are usually preceded by a half to a three quarter metre long telescope in front of them, that must cost $25,000 or something. And you think, I wonder how much birding has become, if you like, just a way of spending money for some people?
Leo Joseph: Well, we talked about that. We talked about that the other day, and I’ve forgotten.
Libby Robin: I’m going to hand that over to Leo, because Leo and I had a big conversation about this.
Leo Joseph: Yes, I forgot to mention that very specific thing in that answer to an earlier question. Yeah, I mean, you’re dead right. And it’s a big business these days, especially in the States.
Libby Robin: I think the bird guides who are defensive of their patch, are defensive because they’re charging people a lot for the tour, too. So some of the stuff isn’t just stuff. It’s also the cost of birding. But on the other side of that is that a lot of the people who love birds, will donate to conservation organisations. And Max knows well about this, because he’s done a lot of raising money for regeneration of habitat, for conserving places. So this book’s for you, Max. It’s very much that sort of thing.
Leo Joseph: But it’s right. I mean, the flights, cars, fuel, accommodation, telescopes, binoculars, it’s more and more significant.
Libby Robin: It’s a bit different from the Hawthorn Junior Field though, isn’t it?
Leo Joseph: On the other hand, I think the flip side is there are still those people that are birding without all of that. You talked about the backyard bird list. So to me, although there’s clearly, as you say, capitalism finds a way to monetise anything, but it’s still something you can choose to do without all that. You can do it just by sitting on a chair and watching.
Libby Robin: Yes, Lish asked me on Triple 6 radio the other day, could I use binoculars now, after all these years. And I said well, actually, no. And I really don’t like them. But I plant things in my garden that birds like, so they come to me. And then I don’t have to look as far, do I?
Saul Cunningham: Good investment. Okay, there must be another question. Here we are, thank you.
Question: Thank you all very much, a wonderful conversation. And it’s well beyond just ticking off the list, seeing them through the perspective of ecology and evolution. But what about the perspective of intelligence? You look at them, and they look back at you, across 300 million years of divergent evolution, perhaps. And what about the relationships with the actual bird? Or have I been too much affected by the COVID lockdown?
Libby Robin: I think that my father’s relationship with Spotty was exactly like that, and was certainly – people who know which Magpies are which in their backyard. There’ll be a lot of those in Canberra. But there was a guy called Angus Robinson in Western Australia who didn’t need to band the birds, because he knew all the markings of the different birds. And he could tell you which ones had which chicks which year, and he had it all worked out, before they had a banding scheme then, in the 1940s. And in fact, he was doing that, I think, watching those birds closely, because he came back from the war and he was in bad shape. He had post-traumatic stress disorder, we call it now. And the birds helped him get his head back. And I think that’s the sort of story I’m quite interested in.
Saul Cunningham: One of the most recently hired ornithologists that the ANU works on – you probably know the story about the Sulphur Crested Cockatoos that have learned to move the bricks that are keeping the rubbish bins shut, and how that culture spread from a point, I think, in Wollongong, more broadly around the district. So I think the intelligence of birds, and in fact, Rob, you’ve worked on the variation in their calls.
Libby Robin: They’ve got the same problem at Lorne.
Saul Cunningham: So the complexity of bird behaviour is still something that fascinates scientists, for sure.
Leo Joseph: Yeah. And you try flying from Alaska to New Zealand and coming back to the same little spot. Yes, no, they are way more intelligent, not just parrots and crows. Way more sentient than we allowed them.
Libby Robin: Somebody commented on the fact that I had ‘bin chicken’ in the index, and they thought that was a good sign.
So this is a question from Bernadette [Hentz 00:54:59].
Question: So the last question mentioned COVID, apropos the bird intelligence. Has either of you got any comments on the differences in bird watching that might have happened during that period? I’m just thinking about my own birdwatching, which got a lot more intense.
Libby Robin: Yes, well, I think it has. And I think our local shrunk in the COVID, to particularly – I was in Victoria, where we had 266 days of lockdown. So we had a very narrow sense of the local. And what we did in COVID, was we actually planted the nature strip around our house, which we’ve got a fairly big block, but we also had a very large cricket patch, under the overflying wires, which were not very good for small birds. So instead of having a lot of mowing, we’ve now got a lot of little shrubs, that small birds like, and we’ve got a lot of completely different species there. So yes, I have. I’m not a life lister or anything. But we have seen 50 species that I can identify. There’s probably been others.
Leo Joseph: Yes, no, there were quite a few articles in the media about people who were paying attention to the dawn chorus more, because they could hear it, there wasn’t so much traffic, and they were walking more.
Libby Robin: That’s true, yes. What do you see in the five kilometres you’re allowed.
Saul Cinningham: Could I ask a follow up to that? There was also a bit in the media about the idea that the reduced traffic was changing the environment for birds and other animals, and that therefore more birds were appearing in places they hadn’t appeared before. I was curious whether or not – how solid is that story? Do you know if it was supported?
Leo Joseph: Well, there’s literature on the flip side of it, there’s literature arguing that vocalisations of birds have changed due to urban noise.
Saul Cunningham: Yes.
Leo Joseph: So I guess it may well have had some truth to it. But it can be tricky to demonstrate it, because science is always hard.
Saul Cunningham: Yes. I know that.
Libby Robin: But the bird strikes at airports obviously have been a major thing; people have studied which birds, and how to put them off being near the airport. Well, they would have flown right on into the airport, and perhaps they’re getting hit again, I don’t know.
Saul Cunningham: Oh true, yes.
Libby Robin: But certainly I noticed the colour of the sky change, because the brown smudge that was over Melbourne cleared, and it was just amazingly different. So presumably, the birds are breathing better air too.
Saul Cunningham: Yes. But COVID’s gone, and we’ve gone back to where we were.
Libby Robin: Yeah, look, unfortunately COVID hasn’t gone. But we’ve gone back to where we were.
Saul Cunningham: Yes. We have time for more questions. There’s one right in the middle. The hardest possible place to get a microphone, but I’m sure we’ll find a way.
Libby Robin: This is Anne Patterson.
Anne Patterson: Libby, I just wanted to make a comment about your – well, you and Leo both talked about bird people moving on to dragonflies or bees. Of course, I know entomologists who are very, very keen on birds. And I just wondered if there was anything in your taxonomy about that sort of thing?
Libby Robin: No, I haven’t covered that in this book. But I can let people in on a secret, that Anne’s father is very good entomologist, but he was also very interested in birds and evolutionary theories. So there are lots of – I think the things that fly probably have more overlaps than the things that – I don’t know, the swimming things and the – you get fish and birds together sometimes, but you don’t so much get underwater, the blue humanities people, who I talk to, who want to talk about the oceans, tend not to talk so much about birds, except for Albatrosses, but they’re not really actually in the sea, are they? They fly all the time.
Leo Joseph: If I can pick up on that. So the decline of insectivorous birds in southeastern Australia since the ’70s, and I guess, well, really since before then, but since the ’70s, is well known, pretty well documented. But the declines of insects around the world is – are a really disturbing thing. Now in the northern hemisphere, there are the long term data sets that can, I believe, that can better demonstrate the reality of insect declines.
In Australia, through my entomological colleagues, I don’t think we have those long term data sets about the diversity and abundance of insects at particular spots over decades. But I think many of us have that general experience that insects are just not hitting the windscreen as much as they used to, and all that sort of stuff. And so I hope you’ll take heart from the fact that two of my colleagues at the Australian National Insect Collection and I have recently submitted a little note, just trying to get ornithologists to think more about the merit of working with entomologists, and any synergies that they can develop to better understand these declines, that are definitely happening.. The presumptively new buildings can be fantastic for that then right, it will because we finally be in the same building instead of nine kilometres apart. And that’s a great thing.
Libby Robin: And presumably the new building’s going to be fantastic for that.
Leo Joseph: You’re damn right, it will, because we’ll finally be in the same building, instead of nine kilometres apart. And that’s a great thing, yes. So there’s hope. There’s heart, take heart.
Saul Cunningham: All right, I think we do have time for one more question, if there is one. There you go. Steve gets the last one.
Libby Robin: This is Steve Davis.
Steve Davis: Libby and Leo and Saul, thank you. You’ve talked about birding. You’ve talked about listers, hunters, all of that. Eggers, and the old but hopefully disappeared Australian hobby; is that appeared in the narrative?
Libby Robin: Eaters?
Saul Cunningham: Egging.
Libby Robin: Oh, egging, yes, yes, there’s definitely – well, the Gould League, of course, was set up to stop boys generally egging in 1909. And it had some success.
Leo Joseph: And don’t forget John Gould shot every bird he ever saw.
Saul Cunningham: But he left the eggs.
Leo Joseph: He did.
Libby Robin: He didn’t have a choice, though, in the sense that there were other ways of getting information. But the people who kept collecting eggs after the middle of the century, really had to start – so Charles Sibley is an example. If you had eggs, and you wanted a particularly rare bird, and you needed its eggs, it’s pretty controversial. But you couldn’t do the science he was doing without the egg.
Leo Joseph: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I could talk a long time about egg collecting. It’s kind of still going on, but very much reduced. It’s very much under the –
Libby Robin: He was limited then, but you’re not so limited now, for your evolutionary work.
Leo Joseph: Well, yeah. Yeah. So yeah. But egg collecting has declined. And that’s a good thing. If young men – it’s almost always young men, I think I know of two women egg collectors in the history of Australia and egg collecting. If they hadn’t stopped by the age of 16, they never stopped. But they did amass incredibly important resources in these egg collections, because an egg is a really good evidence that a bird was breeding. And they come with a locality and a date.
Libby Robin: And the thinness of the shell of course, taught us about other things.
Leo Joseph: Well, yes. And now we can get DNA out of the shell itself. But if you want to understand how environmental change has affected things like the breeding of birds, these egg collections are really good input data, with which to generate your predictive models and so on. So the model you get out the end is only as good as the data you put in. So the egg collections are really important, but thankfully, they’re not as prevalent as they used to be. But they’re still out there. And we have an important growing egg collection here at the wildlife collection from these old collections.
Saul Cunningham: All right, well, thank you. Thank you very much for coming along, and for participating in this conversation. Thank you, Libby, for the book, of course. And thank you, Leo, for being in conversation with Libby. We wrap it up there, but there is an opportunity to, I think we go up the stairs, and there’s an opportunity to get signed copies of the book, which will make it an even more valuable book to have on your bookshelf, and an opportunity to chat. So thank you very much. Thank you to people online. And thank you for everybody in the room.
'What Birdo is That?' reveals how bird-people in Australia have gone about their craft across the years. Its stories come from wild places – at sea as well as on the land-from dusty archives, from restoration projects, gardens and urban wastelands. This field guide to Australia's bird-people provides a basis for understanding the complex relationship between people and birds in a land of extremes at the forefront of changing climate and habitats.
About Professor Libby Robin
Emeritus Professor Libby Robin FAHA is an historian of science and environmental ideas. She is Emeritus Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. Career highlights include Guest Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm in the Division of History of Science and Technology (2011-2014; affiliated professor 2015-2017) and Senior Fellow in the National Museum of Australia's Reseach Centre (2007-2015).
About Dr Leo Joseph
Dr Leo Joseph joined CSIRO as Director of the Australian National Wildlife Collection in November 2005. Originally from Adelaide and still a birdwatcher at heart, he developed an early but lifelong interest in the evolution of birds, one that still guides his work today. From 1994-97, he held a Visiting Professorship in the Laboratorio de Evolución, Faculdad de Ciencias, Montevideo, Uruguay. There he developed interests in the evolution of migration. This work typified his interest in integrating ecological diversity and evolution. In 1997 he took up a position in the Department of Ornithology at the then Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in the USA. From 2003, he was Chair of the Department but returned to Australia in 2005.
About Professor Saul Cunningham
Professor Saul Cunningham's first experience of research was as an Honours student at Monash University. He then received a Fulbright Award to support Ph.D. studies in the USA with field work in Costa Rica. In 1995, he returned home to Australia and commenced post-doctoral projects at Macquarie University, before joining CSIRO in Canberra as a Research Scientist. Over a 17-year period with CSIRO, Professor Cunningham developed a research program focusing on the challenge of maintaining biodiversity in landscapes dedicated to agricultural production. He has worked with farming industry groups, local landholder groups, and a wide network of international colleagues with shared interests.