A REAL Field Guide to the Birds of Australia

This contribution, written by Patrick O'Malley, can be loosely described as a quest for a real field guide to Australian birds.

I have been interested in the correspondence on the topic of rarest birds. The following are the ones I have not seen, plus explanations. I feel quite strongly about this:

1.  Approx 52 species of seabird. I don't count these on the grounds that they never touch base in Australia unless dead. Ha! Any bird you have to go to sea for clearly belongs on the list for "Oceans" - for which country I note there is no simple field guide. (Field guide - See what I mean?). My field guide is all the more portable for excising these non-Australian birds.

2.  All those alleged parrots that are really indistinguishable from Blue Winged parrots. These obviously ARE Blue Winged Parrots but on 'Bad feather days'. And the recent Wingspan article only confirmed this. The exception is the Orange-bellied Parrot which obviously exists - and I have seen it.

3.  Purple crowned Lorikeet. A hoax perpetrated by whoever runs the car park at Tullamarine Airport. My observations confirm these to be Indian Mynas.

4.  Owls. Another series of bogus names, this time for the Tawny Frogmouth. People get confused in the dark. Quite a few are probably bats (both the sightings and those who claim them as 'owls'). I have torn the relevant pages out of my field guide, as they cannot be read in the dark. This is when owls are alleged to be 'out' - how convenient! All instances I have come across regarding owl calls at night turn out to be "owlers" playing tape recordings. (Probably of Ocean birds for all I know).

5.  All those alleged fairy wrens that look like Variegated Wrens. Obviously all ARE Variegated Wrens (I suppose that's why the original name was chosen). See entry above under Blue Winged parrot. I've torn these pages out too - useless lumber.

6.  Waders. Don't make me laugh. Days spent at Werribee Sewage Farm confirm that these are merely another single variable species, best subsumed under Sharp Tailed Sandpipers. People probably hallucinate from the fumes. Last time I was there some 'expert' pointed out a large and boisterous Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and called it a Rough. I dare say, but hardly grounds for naming a separate (and mis-spelt) species. Leg and bill colour variation, and quite possibly plumage, clearly depends on the mud (or worse) that the sandpipers are wading in. My revised guide has only one page for waders with several illustrations showing some of the major but still trivial local variations in plumage, size etc of Sharp Tails.

This is, of course only a start. I was pleased to see an honest emailer point out recently that the Lewins Rail is 'probably extinct nowadays'. Of course it is. That's if it ever existed. My observations, incidentally, strongly suggest that the so called 'Spotless Crake' is very likely an imm Dusky Moorhen, so maybe we should rethink those Crakes and Rails pages. Most people I know are honest enough to admit to not actually seeing many 'up close'. Like 'owls' and a number of other fraudulent entries, these are said to be seen only under adverse conditions. They are said to 'skulk'. I bet. Let's tear those pages out of the guide as well, except of course for the Buff Banded Rail.

Perhaps we should produce a properly revised Field Guide that will be both more portable and more honest about the 362 species that actually exist in this country (all of which, incidentally, I have seen).

I think all sincere birders will join me in looking forward to hearing from someone more expert than I, who could lead the task of producing a more realistic field guide to Australian birds.


Part two: a year on:
Close to a year has passed since I reported last on the progress with the new and streamlined handbook. This message is to assure birders everywhere that AFGRAB (Abbreviated Field Guide to Real Australian Birds) is moving ahead, principally through BBEP (the Bogus Bird Elimination Project). This is despite reports of new species, which had to be investigated and discouinted. (e.g. the "Blue Rock Thrush" - a Qantas marketing hoax). The continued elimination of existing bogus species has been assisted by invaluable contributions of birding ausers. See for example, the posting last year showing that the 'Lewins Rail' is the Bell Miner in bathing plumage.

Against my basic principles, I was compelled to include new entries, as some new species evidently have evolved in Australia over the past 12 months or so. Examples include, the Great Crested Grebe and the Singing Bushlark. Both of the latter appear to be establishing themselves rapidly (two further sightings since my discovery of the species in October 1998). Because such sightings forced me to expand the field guide considerably from its handy 362 entries, I had to seek other ways to render it more manageable. Two new techniques were suggested by the recent and very useful 'abbreviations' debate on Birding Aus:

First, many pages have been saved by elimination of Latin names. I'm all in favour of multiculturalism, but this is ridiculous - and an example of bogus political correctness. All the native speakers died off centuries ago. In any case (a) there are no records of Roman birders ever having come to Australia, and (b) prior to the invasion, Koori people rarely used Latin, even on very formal occasions. So these latinizations are not 'authentic' in any way. Last, note that speaking in italics - like pointing, which it resembles - is known to scare birds away.

Second, the English names for birds should also go. These are far too long, even Emu. Plus, some birds get more than one name - "Australian Spotless Crake" and "immature Dusky Moorhen" for instance. The first letter(s) of the bird's English name would provide more efficient nomenclature. How many people wouldn't instantly recognise E. for example? And think of the 19 letter (86.35%) saving effected with WCH. Some further economy could be achieved - for example 3B instead of BBB (90% saving from the English name - should the existence of that species ever be confirmed). Quite a few currently separate species could be collapsed into one (e.g. BH - although one of these is probably mythical in any case). As well, some different species would be recognised as subspecies on the basis of this new nomenclature, and also collapsed together (e.g. BH and B2H). This will create further economies.

True, like other names, abreviations can sometimes be confusing. Misunderstandings about the Black Breasted Quail account for why this non-existent bird is often reported in suburbia. The solution is stricter regulation. A formal list of the new species names should be drawn up. Offensive outcomes of this process could be changed (e.g. the unintentionally snide PC could be PK). Of course, we could be a bit more liberal informally. The first time a bird is mentioned, the official abbreviation should be used. After that, however, other abbreviations would be OK, if they are first indicated in parenthesis next to the official abbreviation. For example : 2BD(BD). When the project is complete, we will laugh about times past, when - in a hoarse whisper that scared the guano out of some wretched little sparrow - we hissed 'Look - Large Billed Scrub Wren' instead of 'Look - LBSW(LS)'. More to the point, it will cut about 15 pages from the overall length of the AFGRAB.

I am working on some other proposals, and recently achieved a major breakthrough. Most birders, trying to identify a bird, spend frustrating seconds leafing through pages of birds already seen (sometimes on several occasions!). Meanwhile it has zoomed off into the distance. Or hidden under a rock. AFGRAB will now come with all species' text and illustrations perforated for easy removal upon its observation. This will also assist with the process of removing species subsequently confirmed as extinct or bogus (e.g. Purple Crowned Lorikeet - but that's another story). It will prevent considerable confusion in the field: if the bird in question is not in the book, then either we've seen it before or it doesn't exist. Either way we can forget about it. Finally, it will assist with the twitchers' status hierarchy. One could impress fellow birders, even from a distance, by the instantly recognisable slimness of one's AFGRAB.

As a result of this latest breakthrough, and continued achievements of BBEP, copies of AFGRAB will soon consist only of a front and back cover. In contrast with heavy and cumbersome competitors (e.g. Slater, or those even more awkward bird posters e.g. 'Common Birds of the Victorian Coastline' (try using these on a windy day)) there will be no need to cart AFGRAB off on birding expeditions. After all, in the unlikely event that a new species has to be added to the guide, it would immediately be removed on the grounds that you have now seen it.

Pat O'Malley

PS - I am currently trying for an ARC grant to fund this. Fat chance. They never fund anything really interesting. (I have records to prove this).

-- by Pat O'Malley, La Trobe University, Australia; from Michael McLeish, Ann Arbor, MI

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