Where Song Began

by Tim Low

(author’s website:

This is my fifth review for the Aussie Author Challenge 2015 (first, second, third and fourth).

From the back cover:

“Australia is known as the land of marsupials, but its birds are even more extraordinary.

Compared with those elsewhere, they’re more likely to be intelligent, aggressive, loud, long-lived, and to live in complex societies. They’re also ecologically more powerful, having profoundly influenced Australia’s forests. And unlike the mammals, some of them have spread around the globe: more than half the world’s birds, including all its songbirds and parrots, many pigeons, and even the dodo, can be traced back to Australia. No other continent has been as important for bird evolution.

Tim Low explains all this with the narrative flair of a born storyteller and the expertise of his many years as a biologist. His tale of our birds is a rich and revealing portrayal of the Australian continent itself, from the deep past to the human present. And just as the birds are unusual, so too are the relationships Australians have formed with them, including strong, perverse affection for two of the world’s most dangerous…

Fresh, engaging and informative, Where Song Began will change the way you think about the country we live in and the birds we share it with. 

I really enjoyed reading this book, although I have to admit that some of the science was a little beyond me (high school science was a long time ago) and so a future re-read should hopefully give me a firmer overall grasp of the topic. The combination of personal experience and academic research Low uses reminded me of Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, a style which really does help a reader, like me, who comes from a non-scientific background. In Where Song Began, Australian birds are examined through evolution and DNA studies, migration, ecology and the environment, their relationships with humans and their potential future in relation to climate change and changing land use.

As the blurb above notes, Low is an excellent writer who uses a more personal tone to explain scientific concepts. I particularly enjoyed his puns, sarcasm and alliteration (like “parrot palette” (p.113). The main argument of the book is that all available evidence indicates that songbirds evolved in Australia (as it existed millions of years ago) and later spread out to the other continents, and that the ecosystems which existed in early Australia, particularly the high levels of nectar-providing plants and minimal fruit-eating mammals, caused the evolution of the relatively large number of large, aggressive birds that Australia sustains. I found the later chapters like ‘The Forest Makers’, ‘Of Grass and Fire’ and ‘Life in a Liquid Landscape’ the more interesting as they relate a specific type of environment to the birds which live in it, as well as a section where Low admits that there are questions to which no-one yet has the answer, like why Australian magpies act differently in different states. In Queensland, magpies live one breeding pair to a territory, while in the south-west of Australia they live with up to five separate pairs who will work together to protect one territory, while in Victoria magpies practice cooperative breeding (where lesser ranked magpies help raise the chicks) (p. 276).

Where Song Began has certainly piqued my curiosity about the birds that I see every day, but I think that that may have a lot to do with the fact that I live in an area where I do see a lot of different Australian birds every day. Reading the book, I could relate to quite a few of the scenarios with my own experiences, which definitely helped my own reading experience.  In that case, I think that Where Song Began would probably appeal most to those who already have an interest in Australian birds, or in the evolution of Australian flora and fauna, or those who do or have seen a number of Australian birds and can relate to the examples given.


Where Song Began fulfils the #male author, #non-fiction book, #author new-to-me and #book published in 2014 or 2015, tags of the Aussie Author Challenge 2015.

So far I have read:

4 books by a female author

1 book by a male author

4 non-fiction books

1 fiction book

5 books by an author who is new to me

3 books published in 2014 or 2015


5 thoughts on “Review

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