Where Song Began
“Australia has such unusual mammals that they have long cast a shadow over something of equal distinction, the birds. These stand out in so many different ways – in ecology, behaviour, evolution and biogeography – that we can learn more about Australia from its birds than its mammals.”
So begins Where Song Began, which was published in Australia in 2014 by Penguin, and internationally in 2016 by Yale University Press.
The book soon hit best-seller lists, attracted strong praise from reviewers and journalists, and won major awards. Due to strong demand, Penguin reprinted the book four times in the first three months after publication, and more printings followed. The international edition soon appeared on a Scientific American list of recommended books, and attracted praise from Britain’s Literary Review, The New York Review of Books, and ornithological journals in the US and Britain.
In a major review, in Australia’s leading bird journal, Emu Austral Ornithology, Naomi Langmore, from the Australian National University, summed up the book as “remarkable on many levels”. The central hypothesis, about Australia’s aggressive honeyeaters, she described as “convincing”.
Penguin’s page about the book is here.
Within four weeks of its release Where Song Began had reached number 4 position on the Australian Independent Bookseller Bestseller List. It appeared on bestseller lists in the Sydney Morning Herald and Courier Mail.
Bookworld listed it as one of the 10 best books of 2014, giving it third place, with the comment that “Low distills a massive and complex amount of research into something quite readable for the everyday layperson.”
Booktopia featured it as one of the 5 best non-fiction books of that year, “The sleeper hit of 2014”.
Readings bookstore had it as one of the 10 best non-fiction books of 2014.It appeared in the Courier Mail as one of the 30 best books of 2014, with a description of it as “A completely engaging book.”
In the Sydney Morning Herald Tim Flannery listed it as his favourite book of the year, with the comment that it “took a familiar subject and revealed it in a completely new light.”
In the Sydney Morning Herald, and Australian Book Review, poet Robert Adamson nominated it as his favourite book of 2014, describing it as “stunning”.
In the US, the book appears in 4th place on a Nature Conservancy list of “essential reading for the bird-brained bibliophile.”
It appears on a University of California Berkeley summer reading list.
Prize shortlistings are mentioned in the next column.
In a lead review published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Sean Dooley offered these comments:
“Low has produced a brilliantly readable book that not only gives Australian birds recognition long overdue, but allows for a fresh understanding of the way the world (and particularly our island continent) functions.”
“One of the main achievements of Australian biologist Tim Low in his impressive new book, Where Song Began, is to turn the world upside down when it comes to how we regard Australian birds.”
“Tim Low is the rare author who is able to turn complex and sophisticated research into a form digestible to the general reader without ‘dumbing down’ the science.”
The book received strong praise from Tim Flannery, in a very long review in the The New York Review of Books, which ends with this:
“Where Song Began provides a novel interpretation of Australia’s avifauna that will enrich the understanding of anyone interested in birds. As a professional biologist familiar with much of its matter I found myself astonished again and again.”
In the Sydney Morning Herald, Bob Beale said:
“This book is a great poke in the eye to anyone who says non-fiction books are the living dead in the age of Google. Where Song Began is a serious feat of synthesis that few bird observers or natural historians – let alone few authors – would have the knowledge, experience, time or access to academic resources to pull together.”
In a very long lead review published in The Australian, Nicolas Rothwell emphasised the book’s role in improving understanding of the Australian environment:
“Biologist Tim Low is as much a natural with words as he is a scholar of the natural world. He is caught up in the circle of gifted scientists, ecologists and field workers engaged in reshaping our picture of the Australian environment and the creatures it enfolds. Birds are a particular focus of his work, and thought – and it turns out that birds may well hold the most telling clues to the record of the Australian biosphere.”
In a major review in the Journal Emu, Naomi Longmore wrote this:
“This book is remarkable on many levels. First, Low proves to be a master at translating new scientific breakthroughs into a compelling and eminently enjoyable read that will bring a new perspective on Australian birds to readers irrespective of their ornithological background. Second, the diversity of sources drawn upon by Low make for a lively read, with the discussion skipping seamlessly between personal anecdotes, historical accounts, quotes from Shakespeare, the fossil record, Indigenous folklore, and scientific facts and figures. Third, the astonishing depth and breadth of the research that has gone into this book guarantee that there is much that’s new to learn about Australia’s birds for even the most avid ornithologist. More than anything, I enjoyed and admired Low’s ‘big picture’ approach, which although sometimes speculative, is bold and thought-provoking, and has much in common with the breadth of scope in Jared Diamond’s books on human evolution. No book could be more appropriate for the readership of Emu Austral Ornithology!”
In Wildlife Australia, biologist Darryl Jones wrote this:
“Where Song Began will be regarded as Tim Low’s masterpiece. It is bewilderingly grand in ambition, rich in scientific detail and personal observations, and overflowing with ideas and, indeed, revelations.”
In another review by a biologist, in Australian Book Review, Peter Menkhorst described the book as “important and illuminating”. He went on to say this:
“Far from being yet another book about Australian birds, Tim Low has produced an original, quirky, and thought-provoking overview of Australia’s bird fauna, actually of Australia’s biota, aimed at a general readership. Importantly, he has achieved this with scientific validity intact. Read it and change the way you look at the Australian bush and its inhabitants.”
In the March 2017 issue of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, William E. Davis wrote that ‘Low is to be congratulated for producing this very idea-rich ecological tapestry. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and found it very thought provoking.”
In December 2016 it was reviewed in Britain’s Literary Review, which described it as an“Illuminating and engaging study.”
In a review in BBC Wildlife magazine, leading bird author Jonathan Elphick was very approving: “I discovered revelations in each of these 12 chapters. The book is written by a biologist with a gift for translating complex scientific research into riveting prose.”
In a November review in America’s Bird Watcher’s Digest it earned this praise:
“Books about ecology and evolutionary biology are rarely so entertaining and engrossing, but Low is a story-teller, and nearly every page offers a compelling, often shocking, story.”
In October it received a recommendation from the editors of Scientific American.
In September the Open Letters Monthly declared it “one of the best works of natural history to appear all year.”
Other reviews have appeared in Canada and Costa Rica.
Many other reviews have appeared. Some reviewers have paraphrased the book in ways that are not entirely accurate. Where Song Began does not say that group-breeding is the norm in Australia or that all pigeons originated in Australia.
An extract from the book appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine.
Another extract appeared in Australian Birdlife magazine.
Here is a short sample of text:
“The birds in northern Europe and northern North America, where most ornithologists live, have unusually narrow habits, limited by severe winters. Territories advertised by song are held only while breeding lasts. Our sense of what the world’s birds are like was skewed by these northern birds.
This distortion was so strong that as recently as 1996 we can find an article in the Journal of Avian Biology depicting most of the world’s birds as unusual. American author Thomas Martin declared, ‘Tropical and southern hemisphere birds represent a particulary interesting and apparently paradoxical system for studying life history evolution.’ Insights eluded him because his every question was inverted. ‘Is food more limiting in the tropics and southern hemisphere?’ he asked, not ‘Is food especially plentiful in the northern summers?’, which it is, since insects peak then.”
This is forgotten today, but during the 19th century Cape Barren geese were sometimes fattened and sold as the Christmas good. They have their nearest relative in South America, telling of a Gondwanan connection.
Prizes & Nominations
At the Australian Book Industry Awards annual dinner in 2014, Where Song Began won one of the most highly prized of all awards, becoming the first nature book ever to win the prize for General Non-fiction Book of the Year. Tim appeared at the Sydney Writer’s Festival the next day to speak about the win.
At the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards it won the People’s Choice Award for the most popular book by a margin of hundreds of votes. It was judged the best popular zoology book at the Royal Zoological Society of NSW Whitley Book Awards.
The book was earlier shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards run by Australia’s independent booksellers.
It was also shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Awards, and the Council of the Humanities, Arts and Social Science Australia Prize for a Book. It was highly commended at the Fellowship of Australian Writers 2014 National Literary Awards.
It was earlier shortlisted for The Nib, a literary prize awarded for excellence in research. As Tim’s previous book, The New Nature, was the inaugaral winner of this prize, as might be expected, he did not win a second time, but by making the shortlisting he was awarded an Alex Buzo Prize.
Television and Radio
Tim talked about the book’s conclusions in a Catalyst segment that screened on ABC TV on 10 March. The segment can be viewed online or dowloaded, and a transcript is available. In 2014 he was interviewed about the book on ABC TV News Breakfast.
He has been interviewed on ABC radio several times, including by Robyn Williams on The Science Show, and before that by Richard Fidler and Gregg Borschmann, and by Phillip Adams and Margaret Throsby.
These interviews can be downloaded or heard online.
Tim has no bird talks currently booked. Past speaking events have included the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, Woodford Folk Festival, Kakadu Bird Week, the Adelaide Writers Festival, the Red Centre Festival of Birds in Alice Springs and the South Coast Festival of Birds in Albany.
Genetic studies have shown that all the world’s songbirds, parrots and many pigeons have Australian ancestors. DNA taken from a dodo has shown that this extinct bird, which was a giant flightless pigeon, was among the birds that can be traced back to Australia. The world’s oldest pigeon fossils have been found in Australia. They are 20 million years older than Europe’s oldest pigeon fossils.
“an absolutely fascinating and very beautiful book” — Richard Fidler, ABC radio
“highly enjoyable” — Tim Flannery, New York Review of Books
“Low has written a book that is highly informative, but also most readable… Where Song Began teaches us all a huge amount about our birds—not least that we should be very proud of them. Thoroughly recommended.” – Sunday Age
“stuffed with the fruits of long experience, wide travels (is there anywhere Low hasn’t been?) and deep research.” – Saturday Paper
“Who knew birds were this fascinating?” — Courier Mail
“a stimulating, informative read for citizens of our bird-rich metropolis.” — Canberra Times
“Intelligently and entertainingly written with a conversational tone, this book is the distillation of scientific research into an eminently readable form. Well referenced and appropriately illustrated, there should be more books like this.” – The West Australian
“an impressive, eye-opening book that gives Australian birds the long overdue recognition they deserve” – Queensland Country Life.
“a riveting read crafted by a man with a knack for phrasing, and a fantastic grasp of his subject.” — Brisbane News
“If you haven’t read it yet, make sure you don’t miss out.” — Victorian Naturalist
“a ‘Gosh-a-page!’ book” — Canberra Times
“an extensive and important overview of how, as far as birds are concerned, Australia is the centre of the world.” — Corella
“This is a must-have on your bookshelf forever” — Manly Daily
“surprisingly fun reading” — Australian Traveller
“A gifted travel writer, Low’s knack is integrating information from diverse disciplines to craft a compelling story, located in place. His writing shares the intimacy of A. H. Chisholm (Mateship With Birds, 1922) and the geographic and intellectual scope of David Quammen (The Song of the Dodo, 1996).” — Historical Records of Australian Science
“Tim Low’s latest book, Where Song Began, has been credited with turning the map upside down, dashing upon the rocks of our shores the orthodoxy that the world’s cleverest birds must have had their genesis in the northern hemisphere.” — Wild magazine
“Tim Low masterfully tells a story not told before. He provides an elegant synthesis of the scientific literature and a panoramic view of how Australia’s songbirds originated; the ecological and behavioral forces leading to their uniqueness; and ultimately their far-reaching impacts across the globe.”—Scott Edwards, Harvard University