Book cover: sketch of a person dressed in a suit looking through a pair of binoculars. A bird sits on their hat.

Libby Robin
What Birdo is That? A Field Guide to Bird-people

As a dweller of the littoral, my love of birds was initially fired by the “otherness” of seabirds. Years ago, researching for a never-finished book, I spent many landlocked hours in the old Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU) archive in Moonee Ponds, gathering information on topics such as the sleeping habits of albatrosses or the breathtaking velocity of diving gannets.

But every bird lover, like every bird, is slightly different. For Libby Robin, author of What Birdo is That? A Field Guide to Bird-people, ornithology as a kid meant “being quiet, listening, searching for Spotty”. “Spotty” in Robin’s case was a lyrebird in Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenongs, a famously charismatic bird so loved by the human community that it became the poster child and chief lure for amateur weekend bird lovers, or “birdos”.

What Birdo is That? is the latest instalment in Robin’s uniquely valuable body of work on how Australian bird lovers express and organise their naturalist obsessions. It’s clear that what unites all deadset birdos is a certain indefatigable quality. The image of former RAOU president Pauline Reilly committing flying tackles on gentoo penguins on remote Macquarie Island in her 60s, or the long decades of work that it took for Dom Serventy to nut out mutton bird migrations, are two examples. And although What Birdo is That? is filled with astonishing, funny and also sobering anecdotes about the avian world itself, it is really a book about how we highly flawed humans attempt to observe, protect, classify and name the birds we love.

Robin investigates the historical connections here in Australia between the materialist rigours of “hard” science, the onomastic obsessions of British interlopers, the amateur delights of twitching and banding, and the empirical expertise of Indigenous knowledge. The book also documents the critical progression from “collecting” birds via bloody means to the less destructive techniques of camera traps and mist-netting.

Robin takes us through a field of historical bunfights involving the various Australian bird-loving communities. One gets the impression she has as little time for Cartesian hubris as she does for habitat destruction, and her clear-sighted emphasis on how the often fraught relationship between professional and amateur birdos must necessarily be a symbiotic one is consistent with that. The book is full of examples of individuals emblematic of this symbiosis, and, as a birdo for life and also a career environmental historian, Robin is herself something of a case in point. She was watching birds since before she could read and, if you think about it, that would be the case for most of us.

MUP, 272pp, $40

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "What Birdo is That? A Field Guide to Bird-people".

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