I know I'm late for this discussion, but combining our trip to Queensland
with a non-functioning modem and the wet season storms that seem to have the
habit of dropping in when I sit down at the computer, makes it fun and games
trying to write. A friend whose house was hit by lightning weeks ago, has
only just come back online (and it seems all the wiring in her mansion
needs to be replaced!). I watch the neighbour's dog for signs. For a
staffie, he's a wimp when it comes to thunder, and the merest hint of a
storm sends him packing to the laundry. And how come he's at our place? He
thinks he owns it.
In 1984, my husband, Hilary Thompson and I decided to produce a bird book,
the first for the Northern Territory. We were birding guides, and most of
our clients, well-educated, well-travelled, older Americans, wished to know
more about our avifauna than the scant information available in field
guides. Yet the book needed to appeal to local people there were a few
³rookie² birders, but most knew nothing or cared, about Top End wildlife.
So the book had to be easy and fun to read.
That ignorance about birds was rife was truly demonstrated when "Common
Birds of the Darwin Area", printed in Singapore was seized by Customs on its
return to Darwin. Officers thought we were importing pornography.
To illustrate "Common Birds" (with watercolours) Hilary and I took countless
photographs, and we collected dead birds, most of which we stored in our
freezer. On one occasion the feet of a disgustingly rotten Tawny Frogmouth
fell off and became frozen in the cream of a Black Forest cake we were to
serve guests (that wasn¹t the worst thing to happen at our house. We lost
more friends through boiling up dolphins on the kitchen stove!).
The research we did for "Common Birds" was to form the basis of my further
publications covering all Top End birds.
The next book, "Fauna of Kakadu and the Top End" (mammals, reptiles and
frogs) was based on my fieldwork as a biological consultant and areas of
study (eg. for my uncompleted Masters in Environmental Science). Now knowing
more about my audience, I added humour, anecdotes, sex (for instance, I
compared the knobs and frills on a goanna¹s hemipene to the tickler condoms
one can buy from a sex shop!), physiology, and a section on safety.
I also used names given to me by semi-traditional Kunwinjku relatives in
western Arnhem Land. Elders thought this inclusion would legitimise the
language for their children who regarded it as ³rubbish². Also, it seemed
ridiculous to me that no other fauna book used Aboriginal information.
Again the reasons for producing this book were varied. I wanted to reach
locals. But also, my birders were often interested in other fauna. I¹ll
never forget a couple of American listers who flew out of the car to see a
King Brown I¹d found (I have a way of slowing these snakes down so that
people can view them easily). It turned out the visitors were very
interested in elapids, but had neglected to tell me!
"Fauna", published in 1993, was a favourite fauna book of many clients, and
is still used as a text by the University of NSW study abroad program.
My next book, "Birds of Darwin Mangrove and Mudflats", published in 1996,
was yet another attempt to involve the public in both birds and mangroves
(I¹d been elected in 1981 to Darwin City Council, on the platform of
While the book was a more or less ³straight² field guide, I attempted to
capture the public¹s imagination by running birdwatching soirees at the
Leanyer Sewage Ponds. The Power and Water Authority came to the party,
donating champagne and supper, and a string quartet. The seventy or so
people who came, wore evening dress and sensible footwear. I later held two
soirees for national television, one presented by model Kate Fischer.
And Ita Buttrose asked me to include the sewage ponds in a trip she wished
me to run for her travel club. Now, that I considered a mark of success!
Imagine, making birding at the sewage ponds fashionable!
All this time I was working on :Birds of Australia¹s Top End". Apart from
researching and writing the text, I produced nearly 500 individual
watercolours, and hundreds of diagrams and maps. My work as a biological
consultant was of great importance here. For instance, while leading a team
investigating Gouldian Finches along the Victoria Highway, SW Top End, I got
to know Grey Falcon well, seeing the bird nearly every day, often perched
only metres away.
In an attempt to engage readers whether they be my largely academic American
clients, ³rookie birders², my students or local people with only a passing
interest in natural history, I again used humour, anecdotes, and Aboriginal
language. There was a new reason for including the latter. Kunwinjku
relatives were keen to become involved in birdwatching tourism and needed
bird names in both their language and English.
I included sex, focusing on male anatomy, an area that no other bird book
had covered (why on earth, when most are written by men reverse sexism?).
Janet Kear, noted British ornithologist, was delighted to help, sending me
information by email, including one paper entitled ³Ruddy Ducks¹ Dicks². We
were in stitches!
I took a different approach to bird song where possible, for instance
describing the call of Black-trailed Treecreeper as sounding like someone
whistling with his head down a toilet bowl! Consequently, a reviewer in the
"American Birdwatcher¹s Digest" wrote of "Birds" that ³the detailed
descriptions of song (and behaviour) put most field guides to shame². Other
reviewers wrote that such a book should be produced for every region.
At one stage "Birds" was selling more per month than any of the
all-Australian field guides. Readers, including several who were not
birders, told me they stayed up all night reading the book from cover to
"Birds", like "Fauna of Kakadu and the Top End" was referred to by tour
guides as their ³bible². Guides in Kakadu for instance, rarely have much
knowledge of wildlife and are generally given little training. So they rely
heavily on books such as mine.
My latest publication is not a fauna book, although it certainly tackles
conservation, giving an Indigenous approach. "Quiet Snake Dreaming" is
autobiographical, and was written to help non-Indigenous people relate to
Indigenous folk. For instance my American clients were intrigued to know
that I can only marry a man with either Pied Heron or White Cockatoo
Dreaming. And my husband, having that dreaming, has a responsibility to
look after that bird and its country.
My relatives in Arnhem Land said "Quiet Snake Dreaming" would be ³gamuk
(good) for bringing about understanding². Judging by the feedback from
Australians and Americans of all ages and backgrounds (many are birders),
it¹s doing just that. Some stories from QSD are being used in literacy
projects by Southern Cross University, NSW.
Building bridges between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people takes a
multi-faceted approach, hence the need for a variety of publications.
Likewise, efforts to connect wildlife, the natural environment and human
beings need both the "dry and pedestrian" and approaches like mine and Sean
Without engaging the general public reconciliation will continue to falter.
Likewise with birds. Without engagement at a number of levels, ³rookie²
birders may not become experts, people with little interest in natural
history may not become ³rookie² naturalists, and children may only be
interested in saving polar bears or whales, if anything other than
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow
on 28/12/07 11:05 AM, Gordon and Pam at wrote:
> Dear all -
> As a rookie birder with limited time , I'm looking for well-written books on
> birds generally - eg, habits, biology, lifecycles, migrations, and the such
> - and on birding as a pastime. I gather Dooley's book would be a hoot on the
> I tried to read a book with lots of interesting bird info in it a few years
> ago, but it was written in such a dull and pedestrian style I couldn't
> finish it.
> What is good out there?
> I'm also not averse to well-written web-pages.
> Thanks in advance
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