Thumbnail image Kelly Dalling

[Slide text: Where Song Began, Tim Low; Photo: Superb lyrebird singing] 

[Audio: Superb lyrebird singing and calling] 

[Man] …the sound records. My friends, and I said, “Yeah, sure. I’ll help.” 

[Mike] Good evening everybody. 


Great to see you all here at the Lab of Ornithology for another stellar Monday Night Seminar. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Mike Webster, I’m the director of the Macaulay Library. And I am extremely pleased to be here to introduce tonight’s speaker. I’m pleased for a couple of obvious reasons. One is that I study Australian birds and birdsong, and this guy wrote the book about it. 


So that’s, I’d say it’s very much a pleasure to be here, to have Tim visit us and talk about that, and secondly Tim did write that book, which I, so let me before you, let me back up, tonight’s speaker is Tim Low, the author of Where Song Began, as well as about six or seven other books on a diversity of topics including different species, bush medicine and foods, how humans are actually making the world a better place for some organisms, and diverse topics like that. 

I recommend those various books to you, but if you read none of the others, read Where Song Began, because it’s a stunning piece, accomplishment, piece of work that I love. It, quickly, when I was about halfway through the book when, it quickly vaulted up to my top five list of favorite nature books. And apparently I’m not alone. It’s won a lot of accolades and awards, including best non-fiction work by the Australian… Book Industry.

[Audio: Superb lyrebird sounds continue]


Thank you. It’s hard to compete with a lyrebird. So best non-fiction book award by, from the Australian Book Industry, which is I believe that this, your book was the first nature book to ever win that award, so it’s quite an accomplishment. It’s a, it’s a very fun read, it’s a very readable book. I enjoyed, just, it’s a page-turner, and sort of like making a very compelling case for why birds sing and communicate the way that they do, and why the evolution of that song and that ability could occur nowhere else on the planet but in Australia. So I recommend it, you’ll enjoy it. 

Tim is here, and is having a good time seeing some of our migrants return to the area. So, first time in the northeastern U.S. That he’s seeing these warblers and things that we sort of take for granted. He’s reacting to them the same way I reacted the first time I saw a lyrebird. 

That’s great, I guess that’s geographically appropriate. So I did, I want to leave plenty of time for Tim. Before I get off, though, I want to remind everybody there is a book signing after the talk today. So we have some copies of Where Song Began, and you have an opportunity to get him to inscribe that especially for you. So without any further ado, Tim Low.


[Tim] Thank you. Thank you, Mike, for that very kind introduction. I think, I mean acoustically Australia’s got the best and the worst, so there was a heart’s horn, this academic who travelled around the world, just somehow got a grant to compare birdsong, and he decided that the superb lyrebird was the world’s best songster. So their calls can travel a couple of miles, and they’ll call almost all day, day after day after day, you’re wondering how they’re finding enough time to feed, the males. The males do nothing to contribute to the sitting on the eggs, or the egg rearing. 

It is purely a case of, demonstrating how intelligent they are, their capacity for mimicry. So in that calls you could hear cockatoos, other parrots, and a range of songbirds being mimicked, plus their own calls. And the females are in the rain, rainforest or fairly heavy eucalypt forest, and presumably the females are just listening to the males all around, and eventually after months deciding that’s the best one, and heading over there for mating. And that, and that, yeah they have to be quite a few years old to accomplish that level of mimicry, they’re very long-lived birds. 

As far as I can tell, they’re the world’s third-largest songbird after the Eurasia, the raven that you have here, and I think there’s an African raven that is a slightly greater weight. But yeah, Australia, the most, if you leave aside Antarctica, 

[Slide text: Birds wield more ecological power in the South than the North because there are more oceans to limit the spread of competing mammals; Image: Map of the world, April 2004] 

which you know it’s got so little biodiversity that it’s you know pretty much a dead continent. The most isolated continent, the most distinct continent, and there’s a very simple narrative you can give to talk about it. That it was part of the southern super, supercontinent, Gondwana. Africa, Madagascar, India, they all left very early on. New Zealand left quite a long time ago, more than 60 million years ago. 

And then somewhere around 35 to 40 million years ago, South Australia—South America and Australia left, and that made the circumpolar current possible. So instead of equatorial water flowing down hitting Gondwana, being pushed back up, you were able to get this the cold current forming and Antarctica freezes over. I mean there were other reasons for it becoming cold, but so Australia drifts north really fast, seven centimeters a year, but unlike South America, which bumped into North America, it’s remained isolated. Certainly things have come in from the north, but not at the rate that they would, you know, given this South America’s joined to North America, and that during ice ages Alaska joins up to Eurasia. 

So in terms of trying to understand why it was different, 

[Slide text: The Topsy-Turvy Land Down Under; Images: Emus, kangaroos, koalas, platypus, and man holding a lungfish] 

there’s this terrible narrative that developed in the nineteenth century, and that I grew up with. Really, really, really denigrating, so it’s a place of primitive, backward creatures. And I mean there were good reasons why that was said, you’re having mammals that laid eggs, you know the platypus and echidna, so you know, just the idea that this was the most primitive a mammal could possibly be. Marsupials also regarded as primitive, I mean the word primitive is dying out in biology, it’s become an unacceptable word, I mean if something is alive today it’s competitive, it’s a success. 

And in fact echidna, the egg-laying, one of the egg-laying mammals, it’s got the widest distribution of any mammal in Australia. It’s very successful, survives in farmland. I’ve actually seen one walking down a suburban street in the, in Brisbane. But yeah, the lungfish, and birds. 

[Photos: Bowerbird in his bower, black swan, lyrebird, brush turkey, and banksia flower] 

Birds don’t quite obviously fit this narrative of primitive, although it was sometimes said, but they were eccentric, they were weird. So you know the lie, bowerbirds collecting colorful items for these arbors from mating, the megapodes that I’ll mention soon, the lyrebird which is a songbird trying to be a pheasant in terms of its appearance, and black swan’s interesting. 

If you go back right back to Roman times and through medieval times, a black swan was a symbol of what was impossible. So it was like a purple cow, pigs that could fly, you couldn’t have a black swan. So in medieval times it was perfectly acceptable to believe in unicorns, but not in black swans. 


But if you think about it, if you’re a gigantic waterbird at the edge of a lake, black’s a lot more sensible color than white. I’ve put a banksia there, because these flowers that we have that are visited by our very large nectar-feeding birds, they’re really tough and leathery. So I’ve had a couple of Aboriginal women tell me they used to use the dried flowers as hair brushes. 

So, you know.

[Photos: Cassowary crossing signs that read “Speeding has killed cassowaries” and “Take Care. Recent Crossing”] 

Now, we do, we do have unusual birds, so developing a modern narrative, I mean I can’t help talk about, you know we have birds that will smash up your car and so. I think you know we have the, what are the world’s largest suburban birds. 

[Photos: Cassowaries in backyards] 

So cassowaries in North Queensland and in New Guinea. Please. In New Guinea where they’re hunted, they cause a lot of deaths, they kill a lot of people. It’s, unfortunately it’s poorly documented, we just don’t have the statistics. But I’ve had a New Guinea hunter say to me about the dwarf cassowary, which is only about this high, saying don’t ever run downhill from a cassowary, run uphill. You know, it’s just like, he’s trying to help me save my life in New Guinea. 

There’s only been one death since European settlement in Australia, there would have been lots of Aboriginal deaths, but yeah they’ll strike out with their foot, they’ll kick, they can disembowel you. And this boy fell over, and his neck was torn open, and he bled and died.

People feed them, it’s illegal. This, this bird in the first two images. I went to visit this person I knew is feeding them, I just go and knock on a door, and there’s no answer. I just think there’s this giant bird in the shrubbery like less than ten yards away, and I’m thinking, this is nearly as tall as me, these birds are dangerous, I’m kind of backing away from this bird. But you can see that youngster one there, you can, you know, you can see the kind of suburban setting. So not way out in suburbs, far from forest, but you get a lot of like a little type villages, where there’s little scraps of rainforest. And the cassowaries will quite happily wander around in people’s yards, I’ve heard of them falling into swimming pools, wandering into sheds, walking up to people when they’re sawing wood, all sorts of things. You know, like wanting handouts, of course they’ll steal fruit, tomatoes. 

[Photos: Men in protective gear moving and handling a cassowary in a crate] 

But you can see how dangerous they are reflected in the clothing these people are wearing. So, I went out with this group of national park rangers where there’s someone phoned up to say there was an ill cassowary hanging around the house, as it was it was so weak and young it wasn’t any way dangerous, but you know, like pretty serious gear to handle, to take on a cassowary. 

[Photo: A woman and two men standing outside during the cassowary transfer] 

I went out with these two rangers. There was a woman just living a few houses along who, because there was so many cassowaries hanging around, she was frightened to go out of her house. Think about that, being frightened to go out of your house because of birds. 


She had a poodle and so the rangers said, “Look you’re probably not in great danger yourself unless you do something really silly, but it will kill your dog. Do not, don’t let your dog wander outside.” They do some pretty serious things to dogs, but on the other hand large packs of dogs often kill them. They often get run over, serious conservation issues. 

[Photos: Cassowary on the road with one man and one woman nearby, close up of the cassowary near vegetation] 

And when we left here was one of his fed birds wandering around. You can see it’s pretty, it’s not disturbed by people. But in terms of the size of the bird, so okay ostriches are bigger, Australian emus are taller but they don’t weigh as much. Ostrich’s a bird of very open areas, so are emus. Cassowaries, because they’re a rainforest bird, they will sort of you know move, skulk around in gardens and things. And so I think, you know, they really are the most dangerous urban birds in the world, you know. There’s nothing, no other bird that will come into your garden that’s the size of that, and that, the power to break your legs or disembowel you.


Now in terms of trying to understand Australia’s birds, what’s their story? What’s their past? In the distant past the narrative was always everything came from the north, I mean, hey, this is the important hemisphere, isn’t it? You know, it’s just bits and pieces in the Southern Hemisphere. 

[Image: Part of a journal article- Foundations of Australian Bird Geography, with map showing the likely route moas, emus, and cassowaries took to reach Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea, and two drawings of emus] 

So here’s an Australian journal article from 1949. If you read the caption it says the likely roots followed by moas, emus, and cassowaries to reach New Zealand, etc. etc. And look, pretty well coming at it from here, you know, it’s like the state of New York.


And if, this was actually a very significant paper, you know, in its time. I mean, it was speculating, but that was the way you were meant to think. And he, yeah it’s you know, northern origins. Ernst Mayr really pushed northern origins. 

[Images: Map from Climate and Evolution paper by W.D. Matthew, presented in abstract before the Academy, 13 February 1911 showing dispersal and distribution of principal races of man, and photo of Matthew] 

And Matthew, I mean it’s just spectacular, his bizarre paper that was published in 1911, it was reprinted up till 1974. I mean, it’s just the most amazing baloney. It’s really shows how badly misled science can be. So it’s a huge paper, and he starts off with the human species. 

And this is this map of humans migrating across the globe from a center of origin, Central Asia. And what he says in the paper is Europe’s always invaded from the east, India is always invaded from the north, you know by other people, China is always invaded by enemies from the west. Therefore, humans are pouring out of Central Asia and spreading out across the world. And then argued that all groups of mammals, birds, everything, had followed this pattern, and that the reason that there was almost no fossil evidence to support this was that it was happening in dry climatic periods when not many fossils were left. 

[Image: Map of the world with rheas and tinamous labeled on South America, ostrich on Africa, elephant birds (extinct) on Madagascar, emu and cassowary on Australia, and kiwi and moas on New Zealand] 

But when the climate, when continental drift became strongly accepted as a paradigm, the idea that the continents had moved, that was a real turning point. So people started thinking why can’t there have been groups in the Southern Hemisphere that radiated out? And so if you look at the birds to which the cassowary is related, the paleognath, a totally southern distribution. So it got into textbooks that here is a Gondwanan group of birds. 

[Image: Article “Fossil Shows Ostrich Relatives Lived in North American 50 Million Years Ago” from UT News with drawing of two birds, and view of the earth from space] 

But if you look at the fossil record there are actually paleognath fossils, lots of them from Europe and North America, so the fossil record does not actually back up the idea that these birds are necessarily Gondwanan. And you’ve got quite an alternative possibility, which is that the extreme glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere, the fact that the continents are more joined, so a group of birds that could, might compete with one group, or enemies, predators, that you can have more species interactions. Plus this really severe, you know, they’re, they’re ice shields in the Northern Hemisphere. There’s just so little in the Southern Hemisphere, the climate is much more stable. 

This could be the reason why paleognaths are there in the fossil record but are not living, and the Southern Hemisphere is a refuge for a lot of groups. And there’s spectacular fossils to back that up. 

[Images: Articles “Tiny fossil reveals what happened to birds after dinosaurs went extinct” in Science with drawing of mousebirds, and “Earliest and first Northern Hemispheric hoatzin fossils substantiate Old World origin of a ‘Neotropic endemic’ ” with photo of a hoatzin] 

So if you look at mousebirds, a group of, I think it’s nine species, they’re only in Africa. But here’s an article talking about the oldest mousebird fossils they’ve found are from New Mexico. Paper on the right is talking about hoatzin, you know absolutely iconic bird from the Amazon, in its own family. Oldest fossil found near Paris. Now these fossils aren’t actually telling us anywhere about where these bird groups originated, just that we cannot trust original, current distributions to tell us where groups of birds originated. It’s it’s you’ve got to have a better level of evidence than that. 

[Slide text: Brush Turkey- a megapode; Photo: Brush turkey next to nest] 

[Sound cuts out] 

…of game birds 

[Photos: Brush turkey nest, brush turkey] 

[Sound cuts out] 

temperature for the eggs, get rid of brush turkeys.

[Sound cuts out] 

[Slide text: Australian Ancestors; Photos: North American birds including blue jay, swallow, thrush, warbler, robin, and cardinal] 

…is strong is with the songbirds, you know really the largest radiation of birds there are. And you know this is one of the really spectacular shifts of paradigms. Because the thinking going right back to Charles Darwin was that larger land masses will produce the best species, because there’s just so much competition, such a large numbers of individuals, such large numbers of species that only the very best can survive, so that they are going to be superior if they spread out to other areas. 

And I’m talking here about song birds, so if you look at your field guide, people gets the word songbird and perching bird often a bit mixed up. I mean that, it’s not totally illegitimate to use them interchangeably, but it’s better if you don’t. And so if you look at the the first few perching birds, or first few plates in the field guide, these are your suboscines, so your flycatchers, phoebes, pewees, these are perching birds, but they are not songbirds. That they have simple calls, very few of them learn their calls. And then after that tyrant flycatcher group, then you’ve got your songbirds. And these are these are the ones with more complicated calls. 

Now the idea that the songbirds could have come out of Australia. 

[Images: From article “Reconstructing Bird Phylogeny by Comparing DNA’s” by Charles G. Sibley and Jon E. Ahlquist in Scientific American, including diagram showing how DNA is processed and phylogenetic tree of passerine birds] 

The first inkling was really Charles Sibley, the the pioneer in using chemical methods to look at bird relationships. No relationship in his case to the Sibley of the field guides, but they’re both you know giants of ornithology. And so you know we know that you know you’ve read that chimpanzees share nearly all the DNA of humans. He was the first to do that, but birds were his real love. 

So he was really interested in songbirds and he produced this tree, I mean this isn’t the original journal article, it’s a Scientific American paper summarizing it. But he looked at the Australian songbirds, and we they have we’ve got names, we’ve got Australian flycatchers, Australian robins, Australian babblers. He found that they were not related to babblers, flycatchers, etc. on other continents. They were all more closely related to each other, and so this meant that they’d been one ancestral bird that had separated. 

I mean, he was using the interesting technique of splitting DNA strands, so you know the double helix, two strands. He would boil up the DNA until the strands broke. He’d have two species of bird together, he’d let them combine. And the extent to which the strands would recombine was his indication of genetic similarity. And so yeah, if they’re very very similar you think that it’s not that far back in time that those two species shared a common ancestor.

So he gets this Australian radiation of birds here, but in among this cluster here he gets crows, shrikes, and jays, so birds that are all through the Northern Hemisphere. 

[Image: Map from same paper, showing dispersal of tribe Corvini from Australia to other continents] 

And so his conclusion was that that group of birds had spread out of Australia. And this this was quite shocking to say this, I mean no one in the biological community in the world was very happy with the idea that crows, shrikes, jays, pretty important birds, that they had an ancestor in Australia. I mean crows didn’t evolve in Australia, but a single bird that left Australia had given rise to them. 

His techniques were very crude, there were a lot of mistakes in his findings.

[Images: Scientific articles “A Gondwanan origin of passerine birds supported by DNA sequences of the endemic New Zealand wrens”, “A super matrix phylogeny of corvid passerine birds (Aves: Corvides)”, “A phylogenetic hypothesis for passerine birds: taxonomic and biogeographic implications of an analysis of nuclear DNA sequence data”, and “Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation”] 

But there’s just been so many DNA papers in the last 15 years using different techniques, and they all agree with this finding that songbirds came out of Australia. 

[Slide text: Aggerbeck et al. (2014) Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 70: 272-285; Images: Phylogenetic tree of birds, photos of lyrebird and treecreeper] 

So here’s just one of those papers, I’ll just try and quickly explain how it works. If you find that genetically two birds, two species are quite closely related, you’ll draw them, you’ll put them together on a branch. So here’s an Asian, Asian Shrike and the shrikes here. Then if they’re not quite as related, it’s the next branch, so there’s crows and ravens. 

At the very, very end of this process, you’ve got the songbirds, that are the least, you know, they just don’t seem to be related to any other songbirds, and that’s implying that they hived off an incredibly long period of time ago. And what you get for your bottom branch, so these are, this is a representative of the the suboscines, so you know equivalent to your flycatchers, American flycatchers. 

The first branch you get are lyrebirds. Now if this was sampling a larger range of birds it would also get two other little Australian birds, scrubbirds. Next branch you get Australian treecreepers, next branch you get is an overwhelmingly Australian group of birds with just a couple that have got into Southeast Asia, the next batch is totally Australia, the next branch you start getting New Guinea, New Zealand birds. And then you start getting serious Northern Hemisphere birds. 

And so this pattern of incredibly old lineages, well you know, lineages taken to be very old, don’t have any relatives, all being Australian, is implying that this is where the songbirds were starting out. That’s just one line of evidence, if that was all there was you’d say well that’s very interesting, but maybe maybe that’s not quite enough. 

But there are two other lines of evidence. If you go back to the Miocene, if you go back about 15 to 20 million years, fossil songbirds have been found, lots of fossils in Europe, lots in North America, a much smaller number in Australia. If you look at the ones in Europe and North America they will belong to extinct groups, they can’t, I mean I think there’s one of the Miocene fossils they’re saying family Parulidae, so it’s of a wood warbler, but it doesn’t fit any living genus. 

But it’s very interesting that the oldest fossil birds, fossil songbirds, we have, where you can, they’re in a living Australian genus. Oops, ahh what did I do? Yuck. Did something bad. Uhh. Okay. So the the oldest fossils that you can say, ah yeah, that’s in a genus that still exists, from the mio—, early to middle Miocene, lyrebirds, treecreepers, logrunners, and so tell us, all, all Australian. 

So the implication would be that if you went back 15 to 20 million years, went birdwatching, and we want to identify songbirds. If you’re in North America or Europe, you say oh that looks a bit like this or that, but it’s not quite anything in my field guide. But you could come to Australia and say oh yeah that’s clearly a lyrebird, that’s clearly a treecreeper. 

[Slide text: The Unusual Syrinx Morphology of Australian Treecreepers Climacteris, Peter L. Ames, Songbird voicebox (syrinx) designs – 3 designs in Australia, only 1 design elsewhere; Images: Diagrams of three types of songbird voiceboxes, one found in 4 species, one in 7 species, and one in 4500 species; and photo of a white-throated treecreeper] 

The other evidence I think is really interesting is in their voiceboxes, their syrinxes. So Peter Ames is, was an American who was passionate about birds, but his thing was dissecting their voiceboxes. He just looked at hundreds of birds, I think that’s just the weirdest kind of obsession in ornithology.


And and he wrote a whole paper just on the unusual syrinx morphology of Australian treecreepers. We’ve got seven species of Australian treecreeper, and they’ve got their very own voicebox design. Lyrebirds and scrubbirds they have got their own design, and all the rest of the songbirds in the world, four and a half thousand species, have got that third design. 

And that’s really, lines up so beautifully with the DNA, and so the idea would be that, you know, these are early experiments in evolution, you know, the very first songbirds, the ones evolving off this way, that way, another way, and it’s the third design, I mean not because of the voicebox but for other reasons, just takes off and spreads all over the world, produces most of the Australian songbirds and elsewhere. But you know it’s funny to think that songbirds are on every continent. Australia doesn’t have more than its share of songbirds, it’s not unusually rich in species. 

But anatomically they’re just so variable, and that you know, what that means is that genetically the distance between an Australian treecreeper and any other songbird is greater than the genetic distance you can find between any two songbirds in America or Africa, Asia. They’ve just been in Australia so long, they’ve just diverged into all these different directions.

[Slide text: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, How Australia’s Birds Populated the World, Monday, May 7th 2018 7:30pm, Tim Low, biologist, author of Where Song Began. There is now a scientific consensus that all the world’s songbirds came out of Australia. It means that all of America’s warblers, jays, sparrows, chickadees and so forth have Australian ancestors. This means that the world’s first songs were sung in Australian rainforest tens of millions of years ago, by birds related to the Lyrebird.] 

Now if none of those arguments I presented was convincing, here’s my fourth card I would play, which is the Cornell Lab’s website ad for this talk saying there is now a scientific consensus that all the world’s songbirds came out of Australia.


So you might not like, you might not want to be convinced by an Australian saying it, but but here’s the Cornell Lab saying it, it’s slightly stronger language than I’d use, but yeah I mean it’s a consensus, certainly in so much as in the last 15 years I have not seen any paper by an expert saying I don’t agree with this. So it is it is consensus science. 

[Slide text: Were the world’s first songs sung tens of millions of years again in Australian rainforest?; Photo: Superb lyrebird singing] 

So what does it mean? I mean, if you if you accept that songbirds are producing song, the world’s first songs were being sung in Australia. And then if you know if you think of the complexity of songbirds’ songs, so people talk about whale songs, you know frogs produce nice sounds, and insects. But you know like aliens coming from another planet 20 million years ago, it’s an Australian rainforest that they would hear this beautiful, like the calls you were hearing at the beginning. 

I mean you certainly can’t say that lyrebirds were around right from the very beginning. I think there’s such a divergent songbird that I wouldn’t believe that at all, but certainly the scrubbirds they’re related to, these little brown things. The interesting thing about them is that you know that they are regarded as the world’s best songsters, I mean David Attenborough expresses that in his TV series. They actually have fewer throat muscles than other songbirds. Like they actually have a simpler anatomy. 

And it’s interesting to speculate on why they produce a better song than everything that’s come after them, but they haven’t been a very successful group. And one idea is that because their vocal repertoire is just so broad that it doesn’t help with speciation. You know, if you, at the moment all the warblers are all calling. Then the narrow range of calls, they can all breed, all speciate. That if your calls are just all over the place, the use of calling as a way of species differentiating each other is is muted. 

But yet to to change, they have to stretch their neck out to get some of their notes because of their simpler anatomy. But yeah I think you all heard it so I won’t play that.

[Slide text: Australian choughs kidnap helpers; Photo: Australian chough on the ground with wings spread and beak open next to another bird] 

Now in terms of behavior, so, I mean it’s certainly the case that in Australia you can find these remarkable variations in behaviors, like songbirds that are setting all records. We have a very large number of very large songbirds, as you know here. Big songbirds are interesting, in ravens, jays, they do they do interesting things, you know caching food, really complex vocalizations. A great capacity to exploit people. 

Now Australian choughs, they are group breeders, so they need about seven birds before they can successfully bring up a group. And these are the only birds considered to practice kidnapping. And so that a group will go up to an adjoining group, and try and convince some of the helpers, so these are young birds, last year birds, try and trick them into joining their group so that they will have better breeding success. 

These are known to, have been recorded using tools, like cracking over, open mussels with rocks. They are really, really quite impressive. 

[Audio: Australian chough calling] 

Great calls. But but yeah, I mean in that one bird call, you know saying we’ve got really harsh bird calls, and really musical ones, as you can see both extremes in that. 

[Slide text: Western bowerbird; Photo: Bowerbird adding to his bower] 

Then of course bowerbirds, you know the male building this arbor, which it’s just a boudoir from mating, once again doesn’t help with the breeding, you know bringing up the offspring. I mean you often see pictures of satin bowerbirds where they now overwhelmingly rely on blue plastic, so they’re, you know they’re really really into the latest technology. Not using many feathers and blue berries anymore. You know, how can the durability of plastic compare with blue berries? 

They’ll steal from each other, so a blue clothes peg or top of a pen. It will get deep into the rainforest, not because one bird’s flown a huge distance, but because they’re also checking out each other’s bowers and stealing from each other. But this is an inland one, where they go for piled things, so traditionally bones, piled stones. They would steal tools from Aboriginal people, and there’s a lot of bottle glass, they like bullet casings. 

[Images: Drawings of two species of birds-of-paradise] 

Um, an interesting thing well, of course birds-of-paradise, so I mean it’s their own bodies that are displaying. These sort of groups of Australian birds, I mean I would regard New Guinea as part of Australia, you know we’ve got Australia, island of Tasmania, then the island of New Guinea just above us. The sea between Australia and Tasmania is deeper than the sea between Australia and New Guinea. Sea levels drop, you get land bridges during ice ages, so it’s really a political thing to talk about Australia and leave out New Guinea. 

But all these weird breeding systems, I mean they don’t make good colonists, so when you think about Australian birds colonizing the world, it’s birds like um you know warblers that can do it, you know pair breeding birds birds. Birds that will travel in flocks, that’s your ideal colonist. If males and females don’t hang out together, and they’ve got ridiculous tails, they’re not very likely to leave Australia. So um you’ve had the combination in Australia of them having been here for longer, evolving off in different directions, winters not extreme, birds don’t migrate to the same extent, so if you can be sedentary that facilitates interesting behavior. Plus the difficulty it is for weird, a weird breeding system bird to leave Australia. We’ve kept them. 

[Images: Warning sign for Magpie Swooping Zone, Swooping Magpie Safety Tips, and an Australian magpie] 

We’ve got extremes of hostility towards people. So the magpie would take the cake as the bird that is most likely, you know in the world, to attack people. I mean this is something that’s been discussed in Australia. Not not related to Northern Hemisphere magpies, it’s not not in family Corvidae, it’s in a Australian family. 

[Slide text: Google “Magpie attack”; Photos: Two children with wounds from magpies, an old man being chased by a magpie while running, a cyclist being mobbed by a magpie, and a man wearing a bike helmet with many zip ties sticking straight out of it to prevent magpie attacks] 

But if you google “magpie attack” it’s that girl on the left, there was a news item about that. She was hit in the eye, and the news broadcast said it wasn’t known if she was going to keep her eyesight. I couldn’t find out if she did. The boy on the right, he lost his eye, he was blinded in that eye. But the bird that did that was not killed, it was it was relocated. So we are incredibly tolerant of our weird and aggressive birds. 

Now because magpies so often attack cyclists it’s quite normal for me to see psycho helmets with plastic projections out there, that makes sure that, because you’ll just be walking through a park, and there’ll be snap snap right beside your ear. Sometimes you’re hit straight on the neck, and particularly children will get pecked in the face. 

[Image: Article “Massive increase in eye injuries this magpie mating season” from] 

There’s an article from October last year, massive increase in eye injuries in Australia. So this is in Victoria, just the state of Victoria. They’re saying normally we see one or two attacks a month, but in July we saw 14 cases of bird eye injuries. So 14 people have come to the hospital in one month, August there were 12. And it’s just in the last year, so I don’t know what the future holds. 

There are very little evidence of attacks going on in the nineteenth century, so you know, Australians don’t shoot magpies. 

[Image: Magpie Alert! Webpage, “Magpie Swooping Season 2017!” with a map of locations of magpie attacks across Australia] 

You can find websites that will show you where the nearest violent magpies are for you, you know like Google Maps types interactive. I mean that one has two different colors depending on whether the magpies caused injury or just dived at people. 

[Image: Article “Magpie swoops in to claim title as Australia’s favorite bird” from SBS News] 

But despite this they are Australia’s most popular bird. 


[Audio: Australian magpie calls] 

And the reason for this, I mean, they’ve got really nice calls, people really like the caroling, I mean they’ll duet. But because they’re so fearless they, they’re just wonderful birds to feed. So people put out meat, and a magpie will come right up and take it out of your hand. So that human engagement with a bird, it makes makes them very very popular. They’re a true Australian icon. 

But yeah, you know, they’re a bit of a one-off I think globally. 

[Slide text: Champions of Promiscuity- 82% of WA magpies have illicit fathers. “Among all birds, the Australian songbird genus Malurus (fair wrens) stands out fo the sheer scale of female infidelity”; Photos: Australian magpie, fairy wren, and noisy miner] 

I think if you look at now all the DNA work looking at paternity in birds, Australian birds are the world record holders. So in Western Australia around Perth they found that 82% of the magpie males, they were not the father of the chicks in their nest, 82 percent. But you don’t feel sorry for them because they’re just fathered the chicks in some other nest. 


The next, so then that’s the highest level of infidelity ever found in birds anywhere in the world, and there’s a heck of a lot more of that DNA work going on in Europe and North America than there is in Australia. The next highest, Australian fairy wrens, there’s a fairy wren in the middle there. And one reason why these do this is that these are very, these will have helpers at the nest. If the male bird dies, his son will often take over as the bird at the nest. So there’d be incest if he mated with his mother. So there’s actually quite a clear-cut reason in that case for for mating. So these variants will just sneak off in the dawn and do naughty things. 

[Slide text: Honeyeaters Rule!; Photos: Red wattlebird, noisy friarbird, and three other honeyeaters] 

Or, actually in terms of the noisy miner, there, a single bird’s been seen mating with, I can’t remember the number, but it was, I think more than 15 different males were seen copulating with her. This is a big colonial bird. But that’s, but that’s promiscuous rather than infidelity. 

So another really striking thing is the significance of honeyeaters and the giant size of them. So I mean these are our equivalents to hummingbirds and the sunbirds that you get in Asia and Africa, but some of them are just enormous. So when John Gould, the nineteenth century naturalist came out to a Australia he compared our largest honeyeater, he said it equals in size an English magpie, which is you know equal size of the magpies in the western United States. So you know we’re talking about really hefty birds. 

I mean red wattlebirds these were an important poultry in the ninth century, they were just shot in large numbers and sold in poultry shops. I mean you can’t imagine hummingbirds having much of a significance as a poultry crop. 

[Slide text: 51 million years old; Images: Article “Oldest Known Eucalyptus Macrofossils Are from South America” 2011 PLoS ONE 6(6): e21084, Eucalyptus fossils] 

And so we have huge amounts of nectar in the landscape. I mean eucalypts, one of the very few genera of trees where bird pollination is really significant in what is a canopy tree. So if you think of, you know, you can have continuous eucalypt forests extending for thousands of miles, and when they’re flowering, birds pollinating, and there’s no analogue to that in the Northern Hemisphere. You know you can, in Asia, Central America, you can find individual tree species that are pollinated by birds, but not not forming huge huge forests. And because the nectar is very open and accessible the birds are large. I talk about reasons for that but, don’t, haven’t got time to go into that here. 

But yet, I love this um, this paper that the oldest eucalypt fossils have been found in South America, and there’s a paper came out last year, I mean I assumed that meant they’d spread through Gondwana from Australia into South America, but some botanists are now suggesting that, the the fossil strata where they found it’s a volcanic site, eucalypts love fire, and suggesting that eucalypts evolved in South America and learned how to adapt to fire in, around volcanoes in South America. 

[Slide text: Australian trees are changing bird communities all over the world by providing birds with sugar; Photos: Dusky wood swallow and white-plumed honeyeater] 

So lots of nectar but we also have this other sweet substance, lerp and this is, this is of significance to North America because this lerp has now, on eucalypt plantations in California in very large numbers, and it’s in Hawaii. It’s traveling all over the world wherever eucalypts are grown. 

So we don’t have many aphids in Australia, instead we have psyllid bugs, and they suck out a lot of extra sap, and make a little cover to hide under so that they don’t dry out. And because it’s made of congealed sap it’s quite sweet, and we have all sorts of birds using this, some birds that it’s their main item of diet. Outside Australia there’s one species of tree in southern Africa that produces lerp, but this is an Australian thing. But as I say the insects have spread, and it is such a significant food resource that there’s a paper being published in California about how all of migratory warblers are now hitting eucalypt plantations, there’s all this extra food. 

I’ve seen, I think it was in California a towhee, oh no I think it was a junco, feeding a cowbird just mouthfuls and mouthfuls of lerp, and some birder in California sent this huge list of American birds that are now eating lerp. And so yeah it’s got the capacity to alter migration networks, increase populations, change habitat use, and yes Australian trees they just provide sugar to birds in really high levels. 

[Slide text: Unsustainable Farming, Australia has ecologically powerful birds; Photos: Bellbird, eucalypt forest with several dead trees] 

And so here we get a really extreme manifestation of alert usage. 

[Audio: Bellbird call] 

So what you’re hearing here is a large colony of birds, whether it’s, the note is just a single bell-like tune. So that’s, you’re possibly, you’re hearing maybe 40 or 50 different individual birds. And I can’t be certain about this, but I very strongly suspect that this is the most constant noise produced by any vertebrate in the world. Because these birds call 365 days of the year, they start at dawn, they go to dusk. If you stand inside a large colony you will not hear a one-second gap between their calling. 

Now all of Australians love this noise, but people in the know recognize that it’s actually a message of hostility. So these are specialized to live on lerp, those little sweet caps, but they don’t, they don’t eat enough of it. They drive away all the other lerp-feeding birds, so that, that tink-tink is really saying stay away, come in here you will get attacked, we’ll kill you if we can. But that, because they don’t eat enough of the lerp the trees end up dying. 

This is particularly a problem where there’s been logging, so there’s some kind of interaction with weed invasion, and post logging regrowth. And so we now have a phenomenon called bell miner associated dieback, which has resulted in vast tracts of forest dying like this. Truly remarkable from, so the ecological influence of birds in Australia, it’s just massive, you know. This I mean these are honeyeaters, this, so once again is you’re, our hummingbird equivalents. 

[Images: Articles “Despotic, high-impact species and the subcontinental scale control of avian assemblage structure” in Ecology, “A particular case and a general pattern: hyperaggressive behaviour by one species may mediate avifaunal decreases in fragmented Australian forests” and “Indiscriminate interspecific aggression leading to almost sole occupancy of space by a single species of bird”; Photo: Noisy miner] 

Now closely related to these are the noisy miners. These are extremely aggressive birds, and it fascinates me the extent to which a highly reputable journal is allowing really what you could almost call emotive language. So look there’s a paper in Ecology, despotic, there’s a description for these birds. 

So once again big colonies, you can have a hundred birds, although it’s hard to tell a colony size because I mean my city of Brisbane, these are right through the city, they’re all in my garden, they’re my dominant bird. If I drive out of Brisbane they’re out there in the rural farmland, keep going keep going I’ve got to find dense, intact forests to get rid of them. 

In some ways they’re analogous to cowbirds, so cowbirds benefiting from deforestation to increase their numbers at the expense of other birds. If you’re a birdwatcher you think there’s a nice patch of forest, you pull up, you hear these, you just take off, go somewhere else. You’re not going to find good birds. 

But yeah so the paper below uses word hyperaggressive.

[Slide text: Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy website- Species Profile and Threats Database- Listed Key Threatening Processes- Aggressive exclusion of birds from potential woodland and forest habitat by over-abundant noisy miners (Manorina melanocephala), Noisy Miners will attack- ducks, all small birds, parrots, koalas, possums, cows, pigs, lizards- “one of the most important mechanisms through which habitat fragmentation and degradation threaten populations of eastern Australian woodland birds” -Martine Maron; Photo: Noisy miner] 

Now these are considered a threatening process. 

[Audio: Noisy miner mob calls] 

So this is them mobbing something. I just cringe when I hear this in my room, aww give it a break. You know like a bird of prey’s turned up, or a cat is acting a bit too annoying, uhh it’s just horrible. 

But yeah, once again you couldn’t imagine a hummingbird making a sound like that. But yeah, so the the bottom panel, like they’re listed as a, as a, under federal law, as a key threatening process aggressive exclusion of birds from potential woodland and forest habitat by over abundant noisy miners. So these have a worse impact on biodiversity than any introduced bird we have in Australia, and yeah we’ve got starlings, sparrows, a range of things. 

[Slide text: NSW has almost as many parrot species as all of Africa and mainland Asia; Photos: Cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets, and rock parrots] 

Okay, something completely different, parrots. I mean we’ve got remarkable parrot diversity. Not as many species as South America, but much greater genetic divergences between the groups. A lot of different genera and ecological variation. So these rock parrots at the bottom, you know run around salt marshes, they nest under rocks. Parrots are doing a lot of different things. 

[Slide text: A Multilocus Molecular Phylogeny of the Parrots (Psittaciformes): Support for a Gondwanan Origin during the Cretaceous; Photos: Black cockatoos] 

I mean cockatoos, they’re just magnificent birds, black cockatoos. So you can see the one on the left, it’s really being a squirrel, or a or a monkey, something. That, the parrot beak is just superior in terms of crushing and versatility, but and the the cockatoo on the right it’s being a woodpecker, so it’s created that hole to pull out the grub. But you can see where a woodpecker, a large woodpecker can be surgical precision, create a small hole, pull out the grub it’s helping the tree, but that’s just making a mess of the tree. 

So I think parrot beaks are more useful and woodpecker beaks you can do more with them, like they’ll climb sometimes with their beak, and you know crushing nuts that we would need a hammer to break. 

[Slide text: The Topsy-Turvy Land Down Under; Images: Emus, kangaroos, koalas, platypus, and man holding a lungfish] 

And then, that was you know on the feeling, that it was embarrassing to expend emotion in such unworthy wildlife, but now it’s kinda like wow this is really really really interesting stuff, and so you know it was a major motivation for writing for writing the book to tell the story. 

Because amazing thing was that in Australia, all these journal articles, it just wasn’t getting through very well to the Australian birding community. And so yeah, you can see why it was able to become a best, you know a best, our best-selling, you know got on to bestseller lists. Because you know just normal journalists are picking it up thinking wow this is really amazing, because Australia’s like the arse end of the world.


You know, how could we, how could we have done this? 

[Slide text: Photo Credits: Eleanor Ager- Superb lyrebird, John Anderson- Red wattlebird, rock parrots, western bowerbird, Bruce Doran- Little corellas, Dori- Northern cardinal, Andreas Eichler- barn swallow, Murray Foubister- Hoatzin, Rob Hanson- Blue jay, Nevil Lazarus- White-winged chough, Robin Becky Matsubara- American robin, Mdf- Yellow warbler, Myopixia- Noisy miner, John Norling- magpie, noisy miner, rainbow lorikeets, Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren- Hermit thrush, Terry Reis- Topknot pigeon, Julian Robinson- Bell miner, blue-faced honeyeater, Mark Sanders- Yellow-tailed black-cockatoo, Alwyn Simple- Black-chinned honeyeater, rose-crowned fruit-dove, Bruce Thomson- Noisy friarbird, Chris Tate- Baudin’s black-cockatoo, USFWS- Pacific Region- Chickadee, Peter Waanders- flock bronzewings; Image: Where Song Began by Tim Low book cover] 

So thank you, thank you for, thank you for coming along and hearing this talk. I hope you, hope you enjoyed it. 


[Tim] Yeah? Yes, yes we do. Yeah, thank, thank you. So the question is how big is the bush? So the bush is not about an individual plant, it’s about, it’s about a vegetation. So it’s a word that will cover woodland and forest. It’s not really used for rainforest or mangroves, but if you say, “I’m going out into the bush” it could mean that you’re going into a huge intact forest. But I mean we also use bush in the the way you use it. There is a bush. 

Yeah, right, and in fact that that probably wasn’t the, contradicts what I just said because that’s in fact is rainforest. But yeah that’d be very very scrappy rainforest growing on creek lines. 

I mean, I mean. Okay, so the question is bowerbird-type behavior, are there other analogies? I don’t, I don’t believe that there’s anything where birds are creating a physical structure. I mean some of the New Guinea displays are just mind-boggling, these maypole bowers with sticks and hundreds of berries and animal dung, just extraordinary. So I don’t believe there’s any analogy to that, but I mean in terms of birds-of-paradise, I think, I mean oropendolas displaying in the Neotropics, I think that’s that’s quite a bit like birds-of-paradise, so I think I think some of these behaviors have independently, independently evolved. But but yeah I mean, maybe maybe someone here’s got an example, but yeah I don’t think there’s any analogy to bowerbirds outside Australia. 

Yeah, well one would imagine that the male bowerbird, like it’s displaying, it’s trying to court the female. Now if you think of some birds, you know, they’ll pick up a twig, I mean our Australian finches, they’ll display with a bit of straw in their mouth, so I think that the bird you know like it adds a bit of action. So I think if you’ve got bright colors around you and you’re displaying, I think female choice could imagine that, so you know I can imagine the female thinking well there’s one over here that’s got a bit of blue, and one that doesn’t, that’s that’s interesting. I’ll mate with that one. So then it becomes reinforced in that sense. 

And so it’s I mean I think one way to think about it is that we know that female, or male birds are often more colorful, and we know that females are attracted to that color or to you know long plumes and things. And the way to think of bowerbirds is that the ornamentation is external to the bird. So their ornamentation is is created outside them. It’s something they’ve constructed, rather than what they’re wearing. But it’s it’s just analogous to, you know any strikingly, like a peacock’s, instead of a peacock’s tail, here’s my beautiful berries laid out on the ground. 

And I’ve spent a lot of time, and I think, I think in terms of mate choice intelligence is part of it. I mean the males will spend a lot of time things, arranging things just how they like it. You can come along and move things around, and they’re scolding you, and when you go back they’re rearranging things, and moving them around.


And some of them they’ll paint with saliva, like they’ll actually paint the inside of the bower. And so it makes sense that females will go for the best bower because, you know, it is a reflection of intelligence, you know, if it’s a, if it’s, you know, if it’s a work of art. If you understand what the woman wants you’ll get the woman. 

Very much so. Yes, so question is how did bell miners evolve? Now one thing I’ll say about the actual tree death, there’s very little evidence in the historical record of trees dying, so the tree deaths is mostly but not entirely a modern phenomenon. So if you leave aside the tree death, it’s much easier to understand, which is the case of their guarding their food resource. 

I mean they are, if I had that on my slide, but it can be argued that they’re farming the lerp, so sometimes, you’ve got the little bug it’s under the cap. Most birds just eat the lot, so getting the protein of the insect, but bellbirds have been seen often just flipping off the the cap, and the bug will grow a new one. So it’s a bit like, you know, shearing the sheep and the sheep grows another coat. So so yeah it’s been argued that this is farming in birds. 

And we know actually with manna, so you get this sticky globs of sugary stuff that congeals, that just very recent research that, there’s one bird that goes around clicking though, you know tearing leaves so that they’ll produce this. So so yeah that’s analogous to sapsuckers in that case. 

Well, yeah. I think, yeah, I mean I’ve struggled to understand magpies. They’re living in very open areas. So they like really expansive parklands, and if you look around the world at another aggressive group of birds that uses this open habitat, lapwings. So you get lapwings in Australia, Asia, Africa, these will attack people. I think one reason why these birds are aggressive is just because it’s easy to defend your territory. You can just see it so easily, so you really can drive away competing birds if if you know some mongoose or some predator’s coming you’ve got a chance of getting it. 

So I think that’s part of it, and I think the other part is that it is a very large songbird, and so it’s very highly intelligent. They’ve, they play, you know they’ll, they’ll, this amazing, if you look at YouTube footage of magpies playing yeah they’ll pick up sticks, and roll around on their backs. They’ll play sometimes with pet cats and dogs. Truly truly remarkable stuff. And so I think, I suspect that some of these urban areas it’s probably quite easy for them to get, people are feeding them, so they don’t attack the people who feed them. But they’ve probably also got a lot of time on their hands 


and so just go after that one. 

Yes. Yes, yeah. We get a little bit, okay so the question is, I mean it’s keas that you mean rather than tuis, yeah. Yeah so keas are these New Zealand parrots that are notorious for yeah wrecking cars, and stealing, there’s two example, examples of going into cars and stealing someone’s wallet, someone lost all their money and so on. We don’t have anything to that extreme. What we do have are sulphur-crested cockatoos, so you know the birds that you would know well in captivity. When people feed these, they like to sharpen their beaks, they’ve got a lot of idle time, so they will sit on, around people’s houses, just start chewing chewing the wood, they particularly like certain kinds of wood, you know western cedar, and they will just tear, you know someone will come home and just half their veranda’s been chewed off by a group of parrots. 


I know that I’ve got, you know, images of buildings where they destroyed the wiring, and and they also, they’re also case of these, corellas are another large parrot, another large white cockatoo. Examples of them causing fires by short circuiting wires with so, one one thing they will do is pull nails, roofing nails out of, we have a lot of corrugated iron roofs. And they’ll pull the nails out of those for something to do.


They’ll pull out, there have been examples of people replanting an area, like they’re putting in all the native trees to help to get the forest going, they’ll just go in and pull them all out. So yeah, it’s I think keas are more extreme. The interesting thing, you know like I was saying that, you’re not, you shouldn’t talk about primitive anymore, like it’s it’s really become an unacceptable word. 

If you do the traditional thinking the kea is one of the most, three most primitive parrots in the world. Like it is the oldest grouping, and it would just be ridiculous to try and suggest that the kea is a primitive bird. I mean to me that is a textbook example of why the word primitive should never be used, you know, to imply inferiority. But yeah, they’re a fantastic bird. I wish we had them, I mean I stuck them in my book, I mean it’s too good to leave out. 



Thank you, yeah.

End of transcript

Author Tim Low takes us on an Australian avian adventure and explores the idea that all of the world’s songbirds came out of Australia, the topic of his book Where Song Began. His talk synthesizes scientific literature with colorful examples of ecological and behavioral pressures that shaped song in Australia’s birds, which opens up a new perspective on bird vocalizations worldwide.