Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

What Bird Is That? A Guide to the Birds of Australia

First published: 1931

Found: In a room full of second hand books at a charity fair

Pages/read time: 200, an hour’s perusing for the non-enthusiast


My absolute delight in finding this 1932 edition of What Bird Is That? needs some explanation. When I was in primary school, my favourite word to spell was the title of my future career. I would cheerfully recite, at break-neck speed, to anyone who’d listen (voluntary audience or not):

Though my ornithological dreams have definitely dimmed now, I was obsessed with birds for a very long time. My first field guide to birds was this fabulous hand-illustrated edition of Simpson and Day’s Field Guide to the Birds of Australia.


I recall many, MANY hours spent gleefully turning pages and copying illustrations as best I could. I’d memorise the migratory range of swallows, the habitat spread of lorikeets and orange rumped parrots, the average centremetre height of spinifex pigeons’ crests. I would pack ‘rations’ of savoy biscuits and sultanas, strap my Simpson and Day into my satchel and lead my little brother on ‘expeditions’ into our (actually quite small) paddock. All in the pursuit of birds yet unseen. The obsession well and truly established, my astute mother provided me with the following volume sometime before I was ten:

Photos and accurate mating season data; new species and race information; nest and egg portraits. It should all have been so wonderful. But I found myself yearning for illustrations. Specifically, the details brought out by the artists in order to lead the eye to key identification traits, nest construction techniques, and silhouette shapes. What exactly made a white-faced, white-cheek and white-headed honey eater different? How did a European swallow’s nest differ from a less well-travelled sub-species? Was that silhouette a black shouldered kite or a kestrel? Mother, her eye well-tuned to the traits of her daughter’s emotional identification traits, made this volume appear the following Christmas:

Michael Moore’s Field Guide to Australian Birds was my hobby bible for years. Even as I started to drift away from the ‘scientific bird-watching’ career my five year old self so coveted, I still regularly flipped through the pages. I can still find common species and family groups from the feel of the pages and recite the names of most birds within sight throughout Australia. My cheap, glossy papered Gouldian prints of eastern rosellas and a pair of king parrots are still some of my most prized childhood possessions. So I was utterly ecstatic, one day at a charity fair, to find my copy of What Bird Is That?


what bird is that detail

A plate of honeyeaters from What Bird Is That?

It’s funny to think this book was printed in the year of the great Emu War of 1932 (no, really). The beautiful colour plates of this volume are still vivid and vibrant. The descriptions are quaint and often repetitive. The science is definitely questionable. But, as an example of an historical Australian document, this is now definitely one of my favourite volumes in my library.

Reading suggestion: If in Australia, try to sit outside on a summer morning in the country or near the bush when perusing this guide. Bonus points for correctly identifying morning magpie calls, galah and corella shrieks and crimson rosella tones by ear while reading.

One comment on “What Bird Is That? A Guide to the Birds of Australia

  1. denzil@TheBookOwl
    December 4, 2017

    Looking back at old nature books I have read and enjoyed is a great pastime of mine!

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This entry was posted on November 1, 2017 by in Australian, Classics, Non-Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , .

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