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 and The New York Review of Books (see News)
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.
Information about British and American reviews can be found here.
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.”
A second review that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Sunday Age, by Lucy Sussex, ended with this:
"Low has written a book that is highly informative, but also most readable. Twitchers everywhere will rejoice, but there is also much here that ordinary readers will enjoy. Where Song Began teaches us all a huge amount about our birds—not least that we should be very proud of them. Thoroughly recommended."
In a third review that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, 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."
“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!”
Another review appeared in Wildlife Australia, where 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."
Queensland Country Life praised it as "an impressive, eye-opening book that gives Australian birds the long overdue recognition they deserve".
The Canberra Times also offered praise:
"a stimulating, informative read for citizens of our bird-rich metropolis."
The West Australian provided a strong endorsement:
"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 Saturday Paper described the book as "stuffed with the fruits of long experience, wide travels (is there anywhere Low hasn't been?) and deep research."Other praiseworthy reviews have appeared in Australian Birdlife magazine and in Birdlife Australia regional newsletters.
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."