Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

Review of Libby Robin, Robert Heinsohn and Leo Joseph by Ruth Morgan

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Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country

Libby Robin, Robert Heinsohn and Leo Joseph (eds), Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, 2009; pp.312, RRP $39.95, hardcover, ISBN: 978064096066.

The first Limina conference in 2006 focussed on Australia’s coastal zone, the beach, as a liminal space. In contrast, Boom and Bust argues that Australia’s real liminal spaces are to be found inland, in the desert. Although these areas are geographically dominant, covering about seventy per cent of the continent, the semi-arid zone is home to relatively few Australians and as a result, it has often been neglected in mainstream discussions of the Australian environment.

The boom and bust of the collection’s title refers to the environmental cycle of Australia’s deserts. Libby Robin and Mike Smith write, ‘The time between rains … is a time for holding the nerve, of ecological stretch, and the irregular rains are at the core of a creative ecological pulse’ (p. 2). It is to these variable and unpredictable rhythms that the continent’s desert birds have adapted their behaviours. The editors use this leitmotif to show Australians how they too must adapt to an environment undergoing the changes wrought by anthropogenic global warming in the twenty-first century.

The collection spans twelve chapters detailing the exploits of various desert bird species, one of which is endangered and another long extinct, and the researchers whose attentions these birds have captivated. The authors’ expertise ranges from ecology and conservation, to history and archaeology – providing a truly interdisciplinary approach to understanding environmental variability in Australia.

The book opens with a review of the Australian field of ornithology since the nineteenth century and its research on desert birdlife. This introduction situates the reader at the nexus of history and environmental science in preparation for the wide-ranging chapters to follow. The late Graham Pizzey, Steve Morton, David Roshier, Julian Reid and Leo Joseph explore the extraordinary boom-bust breeding and migration habits of the black tailed native-hen, zebra finch, grey teal, Australian pelican and woodswallow respectively. Penny Olson reveals the survival secrets of the obscure desert bird, the night parrot, which she explains, eluded the numerous attempts by nineteenth and twentieth century ornithologists to discover them. From a species on the brink to one long gone, archaeologist Mike Smith explores the ecology of ‘last of the dromornithids’, the 275kg Genyornis newtoni.

In her chapter ‘Rainbirds’, Deborah Bird Rose shares her insights into the unique and intimate relationships between Australian Aboriginal people and several species of rainbird: the brolga, the eastern koel and the channel-billed cuckoo. These birds are closely intertwined with Aboriginal identity and the birds’ behaviours offer valuable signs of environmental fluctuation. Robert Heinsohn portrays the white-winged chough of the eucalypt woodlands of eastern Australia as a ‘metaphor for humans living in … highly variable climatic conditions’ (p. 224). Like the chough, Heinsohn argues, humans will also experience power struggles and even ‘gang warfare’ for limited resources under changing environmental conditions.

Finally, historian Libby Robin concludes the collection with a slice of her research on the cultural significance of the emu. Much-maligned by the nation’s farmers, particularly in Western Australia, the nomadic emu has struggled to adapt its desert survival strategies to the fences and boundaries that continue to define settler Australia.

It is a beautifully presented book, with each chapter featuring a careful illustration of the bird in question. Both attractive and entertaining, Boom and Bust will particularly appeal to ornithology enthusiasts with its extensive references for further reading. It also comes highly recommended from the prestigious Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, which awarded the book the Whitley Medal last year.

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