Review: Evelyn Juerson A.H. Chisholm

The Witchery of Mallacoota
Or, What Makes a True Naturalist?

A photograph of a small brown bird flapping above grass
Eastern Bristlebird, Howe Flat, Victoria, March 2021. Photo by Janine Duffy.

From the strictly scientific viewpoint – that is, as compared with such men as Humboldt, Agassiz and Darwin – Audubon was not, of course, a true naturalist.

E. A. Muschamp, Audacious Audubon

The marvel of a hummingbird’s egg transcends the wonders of the Milky Way.

Jules Michelet, The Bird

She understood the modern world as a troubled place. She deplored the increasing exploitation of resources and the cultural tendency to see the nature world as little more than an aggregate of impersonal commodities, rather than an integrated, organic and living whole.

Linda Lear on Rachel Carson, Afterword to Silent Spring

There comes to mind the morning of a day in Spring when, in a pleasant recess in the bush, I tried to separate for a pair of bright young schoolteachers specific calls from out a maze of bird-melody. We soon gave it up. The rich canticle of the Rufous-breasted Whistler and the resounding trill of the Fantailed Cuckoo were acknowledged readily enough, but the finer undertones – the airy, delicate note of the spotted-sided Finch, for instance – were entirely lost on the uninitiated ears.

A. H. Chisholm, Mateship with Birds
A black and white photograph showing the back of a man wearing a hat, turned towards a group of adolescent boys. They are outdoors on dry grass in front of trees.
Chisholm teaching a group of boys about birds, ca.1914. State Library of NSW.

Born in 1890, the second youngest of eight children, Alexander Hugh Chisholm grew up in Maryborough in the goldfields region north-west of Melbourne. He was unhappy at school and often cut classes, to follow, as he put it, the lure of the bush. At first he had no books and no adequate language for the charm of birds, their colours and shapes, their vocal range, nests and eggs, and he invented his own names for them. He left school when he was twelve, but his family was not well off, he had to work, and became apprenticed as a coach painter. As Russell McGregor, Adjunct Professor of History at James Cook University in Queensland, and a birder, retells it in the biography, Idling in Green Places, ‘through the door of the building [in which the boy was working] one sunlit morning in August, he heard the clear ascending whistle of a Pallid Cuckoo’, followed the call, and from then on and whenever possible, continued to observe birds in their habitat.

He began to read. Thoreau and Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, and the eighteenth-century ecologist Gilbert White, among others. White was a favourite – as he has been for so many naturalists – because with him there are always observations waiting to be explained so that everything ‘merits farther inquiry’. Like the fact that ‘house-sparrows are great pulveratrices, being frequently seen grovelling and wallowing in dusty roads; and yet they are great washers’. White’s language was vivid, taking our sense of being in nature to new distinctions of experience.

Published in 1932, Nature Fantasy in Australia was Chisholm’s hymn to Sydney and it was promoted as an Australian version of White’s The Natural History of Selborne. ‘The beauty of Sydney [Chisholm wrote]…is born of the rugged and ragged sandstone…[which] provides wildly picturesque gullies and flowerful ridges and plateaus, and the soil from the old lagoons gives us [he quotes the poet Bernard O’Dowd] “pillared cathedrals tremulously green” – genuine, bird-haunted forests’. This is powerful writing, but his biographer McGregor is not moved by the author’s flourishes. He suggests rather soberly that White’s book – promoting the pleasurable (as opposed to purely scientific) study of nature – was an important influence in letting Chisholm adorn his prose with literary allusions, to use twee words like pixie and elfin, and to address the reader directly. Rather relentlessly, McGregor identifies what he regards as Chisholm’s deficiencies – his soft conservationism, his preferences for some birds over others – to show that ‘Alec built his success as a natural history writer on his ability to combine sharp observation with emotive expression’.

Already as a youngster, Chisholm collected things (though McGregor comments that he collected not only specimens but also accolades), made scrapbooks, kept a nature diary and with his extraordinary memory, gathered an encyclopaedic body of knowledge. He questioned entrenched ornithological traditions and stopped his own childhood activities of killing birds and stealing eggs, and as a teenager started to take a more public stand against the shooting and trapping of wild birds. He joined the Australasian Ornithologists Union and the Bird Observers Club of Australia, presented papers and published articles. One was called ‘Save the Birds’, in which he argued strongly for the protection of young white egrets and other birds being killed for their breeding (also called ‘nuptial’) plumage to be used in the fashion industry.

His reputation grew because he was a good communicator, and his advocacy was applauded by the distinguished poet Mary Gilmore. They became good friends. When Chisholm was offered the editorship of the Melbourne Argus in 1937, Gilmore congratulated him: ‘Good luck to you! There is no one gladder than I am of your high flight and lofty perch’. And for her seventy-seventh birthday in 1942 Chisholm wrote ‘All the elves of August are singing their sweetest in honour of that great Australian, Mary Gilmore’.

According to his later friend, the ornithologist Tess Kloot, by his early twenties ‘Chis was on his journalistic way’. For four years he worked for the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser. Aged twenty-five, he moved north to become a junior reporter on Brisbane’s Daily Mail. In his free time, alone or with friends, he explored the subtropical rainforests of north-eastern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland, where – fascinated by their mimicry – he was especially drawn to the great vocal range of the Albert lyrebird, and the Rufous scrub-bird, which he called ‘one of the most remarkable small birds of the world’.

As an Australian wildlife ambassador, across several decades, Chisholm received invitations to accompany local and visiting dignitaries. In 1920 he joined the Prince of Wales and his entourage on an excursion. For this occasion he had bought himself a new hat, which turned out to be the same as the Prince’s and the two young men looked similar. While the tired (or bored?) Prince rested in the carriage of the royal train, Chisholm (trying some mimicry himself) took Edward’s place to wave to the cheering crowds. That was one story he liked to tell. And this was another. In 1921, he spent two weeks with the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife. Doyle recalled one ‘pleasant Sunday among the birds of Queensland. Mr. Chisholm, an enthusiastic bird-lover, took us round to see two very large aviaries, since the haunt of the wild birds was beyond our reach. Birds in captivity have always saddened me, but here I found them housed in such great structures, with every comfort included, and every natural enemy excluded, that really one could not pity them’. While Doyle was admired as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, he was also criticised for his promotion of Spiritualism; at one lecture he was asked if he thought his second wife would get along with his first wife in the afterlife. For four months in 1945, Chisholm was press liaison officer to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester on their travels in Australia and the Pacific. Bird watching made Chisholm an astute observer of what he once called ‘human fauna’: he noticed Prime Minister Frank Forde’s high-flown elocution and Queensland Premier Ted Theodore’s distinctively ‘old, grey voice’. His sense of human absurdity was easily triggered and he often responded with dry humour and a chuckle. Chuckle: to laugh inwardly or quietly, from Middle English chukken, to make a clucking sound.

The bird that “grunts” is the Cape Barren Goose, a distinctive species of southern Australia, it is sometimes known as the Pig Goose. The bird that “cracks” is the Whipbird…[it] emits a resounding vocal explosion that suggests an elfin bomb exploding inside him…usually followed by…“Gee-up, Gee-up”, from the female; but if she does not co-operate the male is quite able to utter the entire call – crack and response – alone.

Bird Wonders of Australia

In 1921 Chisholm stayed with E. J. Banfield and his wife Bertha on Dunk Island, where (Banfield wrote in The Confessions of a Beachcomber) ‘Birds are numerous, from the “scrub fowl” which dwells in the dim jungle and constructs of decaying leaves and wood and light loam the most trustworthy of incubators, and wastes no valuable time in the dead-and-alive duty of sitting, to the tiny sun-bird of yellow and purple, which flits all day among scarlet hibiscus blooms, sips nectar from the flame-tree, and rifles the dull red studs of the umbrella tree of their sweetness’. Chisholm later edited and wrote the Introduction to Banfield’s posthumously published Last Leaves from Dunk Island.

In Brisbane in 1923 he married Olive May Haseler, who had worked as a nurse at Brisbane General Hospital. There had been a Pre-Nuptial tea party at Lennon’s Hotel for Olive’s women friends and relatives, where she was reported to have ‘looked picturesque in an ankle-length frock of white accordeon-pleated voile, inlet with embroidered lemon tinted panels…with a smart little hat’ which was ‘adorned in front with a cluster of lemon and white blossoms’. The party’s hostess was a family friend whose hat ‘was ornamented with two handsome ospreys falling over the back of the crown’. Chisholm would not have approved. Osprey is a fashion term for cruelly gained egret feathers. It is hard to believe that this hostess had not seen the Australian ornithologist Arthur Mattingley’s disturbing and widely circulated photographs of starving baby egrets whose parents had been killed for their feathers, images that were part of a universal campaign to stop widespread ‘murderous millinery’.

At their pre-wedding dinner, also at Lennon’s, ‘Miss Haseler was gowned in jade green French crepe de soie, completely covered in all-over beading design in silver’ and the tables were decorated with red flowers sent to Olive by her friend Hilda Geissmann. They honeymooned in the Canungra area, a place known for its owls. Perhaps they stayed with the Geissmann family at Tamborine Mountain, or at the Bellissima Guesthouse, named after the ship on which the local Lahey family arrived in Australia. Chisholm’s friend Romeo Lahey was a fellow conservationist who had been the chief activist for the establishment of Lamington National Park. Then the Chisholms headed to Melbourne, before setting up home in Sydney; their daughter Deirdre was born in 1924. A couple of decades later, a newspaper article referred to her in her baby days, as perhaps the most photographed child in Australia ‘where Nature studies were required’, and that she had grown into a ‘bonny lass very like her mother’.

Chisholm was opposed to swamp reclamation, and killing of marsupials. He lobbied for the protection and preservation of Australian parrots. He wrote about and shared the botanist Ferdinand von Mueller’s love of Australian forests and his warnings against clearing. He saw that tree-clearing and plant poisoning had upset the balance of nature. He thought about the future. Lecturing in Queensland in 1922, he warned that the future of birds was problematical and it was ‘inevitable that many species must fail against civilisation’. To counter such likelihoods, he argued for stricter laws to protect animals and promoted sanctuaries and reserves. In his books, articles and other platforms, in a personal and anecdotal style, he inspired people to think like environmentalists and be mates with birds.

Mateship with Birds was published in 1922. In the Foreword to the 2013 edition, Sean Dooley points out that after ninety years ‘many of the birds that are centre stage in Mateship with Birds are now in decline’. He cites the examples of the Crested Bellbird, the Jacky Winter, and the Regent Honeyeater, ‘this stunning woodland bird [which] is down to about 500 individuals in the wild’, and despite work by volunteers and conservationists, ‘appears to be on a downward spiral towards extinction’. With this new edition, Chisholm’s ‘luxurious prose and sumptuous storytelling’ found new fans.

The ethics of mateship were important to Chisholm. One of his best-known photographs is a portrait taken in 1928 of his friend, the solicitor and amateur ornithologist Harry Wolstenholme – called the Birdman of Wahroonga – feeding a Grey Shrike-thrush. The thrush, Chisholm wrote, ‘would hop along as the Birdman lay on a couch on the verandah, over the legs and on to the chest and head, and many times he roused his host by gently pecking his face’ or whistling loudly. In his obituary of Wolstenholme, he describes him as ‘modest, kindly, and as gentle as the birds he loved’. ‘By a curious paradox’, he explained, ‘it was illness that both stimulated and handicapped him in the study of birds, since the enforced leisure caused him to cultivate a latent fondness for natural history, and physical weakness prevented him from extending his field studies’. In 1930 Chisholm was one of a group of bird-photographers who planned to ‘take a lantern to Wahroonga’ to show their latest photographs to their friend, but Wolstenholme died and ‘the slides were screened for Mrs Wolstenholme’ and her neighbours.

A black and white photograph of an elderly white man in an armchair. A small bird perches on his outstretched hand.
Portrait of Harry Wolstenholme at Wahroonga, Sydney, feeding a thrush, 1928. Photo by A. H. Chisholm. National Library of Australia.

About the vocalisations of the Grey Shrike-thrush, Chisholm wrote ‘there are the sweet, chuckling melody of Autumn, the four-note, intimate call of invitation to the nearing Spring, the challenging tumult of mating-time, the loud, single call of alarm when danger menaces the nest, and the piercing scream of odd moments’ (Mateship with Birds).

Birds and Green Places – A book of Australian Nature Gossip, published in 1929, was about the birds Chisholm had observed in Queensland. It carried a firm conservationist message and its informal style and enthusiastic tone were well-received, here and overseas. ‘Lyric tinged with lament’ was the assessment of a Western Australian reviewer. The writer Nettie Palmer loved it. The reviewer for the publication for the American Ornithological Society, The Auk, was also full of praise, saying Chisholm is already well known as an author, former editor of The Emu, and a bird photographer, that he ‘speaks strongly’ on conservationist issues, and of certain species, like the elusive Scrub bird (Atricornis), ‘there is probably more life history in the pages of Mr. Chisholm’s book than in all other literature combined’. For McGregor, commenting on the reception of Birds and Green Places, it is a simpler case of Chisholm ‘finding his feet as a popular author’. He is surprised that ‘none of the ornithological reviewers seem to have been daunted by Alec’s anthropomorphising’.

A word or two on anthropomorphism. Decades ago the entomologist J.S. Kennedy thought that this urge ‘was well-nigh killed by fierce criticism from the radical Behaviourists’. Now (according to D. Bruni, P. Perconti and A. Plebe, in their essay ‘Anti-anthropomorphism and its limits’) it is considered to be ‘a mild vice’ best avoided by ‘an adult well-educated person’. But however unscientific anthropomorphism might seem, it is based on observation, empathy, and awe. It represents our sincere attempts to articulate our encounters with natural phenomena and it survives because it is an essential form of kinship, deeply rooted in human psychology. The history of ornithology is built on anthropomorphism.

Some examples. The nature writer Francesca Greenoak has studied those long traditions and ways in which we have tried to define our relationships with birds. She notes, for example, how ‘in moments, the arrival of a flock of Swifts can change a demure summer sky into something furious and wild. The fierce strength and agility of these black sky-racers has made its impression on earlier generations; they are called Devil Birds in places all over England’. Curious about birds and feelings, the ornithologist Alexander F. Skutch, wrote

It is remarkable how often the sounds that birds make suggest the emotions that we might feel in similar circumstances: soft notes like lullabies while calmly warming their eggs or nestlings; mournful cries while helplessly watching an intruder at their nests; harsh or grating sounds while threatening or attacking an enemy; sharp, castanetlike clacking of the bill while trying to intimidate a rival or interloper. Birds so frequently respond to events in tones such as we might use that we suspect their emotions are similar to our own.

As a child the novelist and naturalist Flannery O’Connor sewed clothes for her chickens. Later she kept peacocks and knew everything there was to know about them. ‘When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn…Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns. This is the moment when most people are silent’. Asked what the peacock was ‘good for’, O’Connor reckoned it was a ‘question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none’.

Bird Wonders of Australia (1934) was again aimed at the popular market. Asking why birds ‘dress up’, Chisholm proposed that bright feathers and adornments ‘may be used for several purposes. They may be partly amatory, partly aggressive, and partly sources of purposeless pleasure to their owners’. Birds mimic because they are ‘sound-lovers’. Friarbirds and Leatherheads weave ‘fibrous cosy cradles high among drooping leaves’. The male Satin Bowerbird’s aesthetic impulse, of collecting and arranging blue objects around his bower, was ‘practising art for art’s sake’ and building a ‘playhouse, a museum…a theatre’ for his collection. My favourite is his story about birds getting close to humans to avoid danger: to survive a bushfire in Gippsland, a man ‘threw himself face downward into a shallow creek, and felt what he imagined to be another person snuggle in beside him, but when his stinging eyes cleared he found that the other refugee was a Lyrebird’. If anthropomorphism’s guiding mood is wonder – and before dismissing it – it also helps to think in literary terms, that we might have learnt our tendency to lyricise (akin to bird song) and to elaborate (akin to flight formations) from a potent mix of human-avian affinities.

In 1938 the Chisholms travelled to England, where he immediately went birding on the Wiltshire Downs, ‘disentangling the songs of the chaffinches, robins, pipits, larks, thrushes, goldfinches and willow-wrens’. Australian birds, he found, had a greater range of tone, and nothing he heard in Europe could compare with our lyrebirds. The trip coincided with the centenary of the ornithologist-artist couple John and Elizabeth Gould’s arrival in Australia, and visiting the Goulds’ descendants, he was shown original documents that included Elizabeth’s correspondence, and the diary of John Gilbert, who had been the Goulds’ collector in Australia and had also accompanied Ludwig Leichhardt on his expedition to Port Essington in 1844-45, during which Gilbert was killed. Chisholm then travelled to Germany to give a talk, which was translated into German by Konrad Lorenz, ‘allegedly [writes McGregor] sporting a Nazi badge on his lapel’. I have not checked the source, but understand that in 1950 Chisholm mentioned this blatancy in a letter to the entomologist W.B. Alexander. In 1973, Lorenz shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Since then the full extent of his embrace of National Socialism has been uncovered. In 2015, the University of Salzburg stripped him posthumously of his honorary doctorate. Chisholm was deeply shocked when he attended a rally at Berlin’s Sportpalast, where Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia: to relinquish the Sudetenland or face the consequences. ‘I am losing patience’, Hitler screamed. In his memoir, Chisholm said he saw first-hand that this was a ‘psychopathic poseur who has been rendered completely unstable by the obscene adulation of Nazi Germany’. Being there, in the midst of that crazy crowd, impelled him to write a letter to Göring to stop Hitler from going to war. This letter, his biographer reflects, ‘reads today as the pleadings of an earnestly naïve Australian abroad’.

In 1941, when the Second World War was raging, Chisholm published Strange Journey: the adventures of John Gilbert and Ludwig Leichhardt, based on Gilbert’s diary. It shows Gilbert in hostile opposition to Leichhardt, who was a ‘muddler in the bush’ and a ‘constitutional psychopath’. Psychopath was also what Chisholm called Hitler, and Strange Journey is his visceral reaction to what he regarded as Leichhardian fanaticism. McGregor thinks Chisholm became so obsessed with Gilbert, to the point of identifying with him, that he exaggerated his hero’s qualities, that Strange Journey is full of brash opinions and suppositions, making it a ‘shoddy’ book, ‘not a work of sophisticated scholarship any more than his natural history books were works of dispassionate scientific inquiry’. Nonetheless, it was reviewed favourably and inspired other work that defended and researched Leichhardt’s life more thoroughly. Strange Journey was also one of the intellectual triggers and primary sources for Patrick White’s novel Voss, published in 1957, about a fanatical explorer. ‘For an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature’, White was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973 (coincidentally, the same year as Lorenz received his award).

This was followed in 1944 with The Story of Elizabeth Gould, using the documents he had discovered in England. It was short, consisting of his Introduction and Elizabeth’s letters. Less enthusiastically received than his other work, in McGregor’s view, ‘Alec had tried to rescue Elizabeth’s reputation from the shadow of her famous husband, but his execution stumbled. The narrative is, frankly, boring, lacking…the romanticism of his nature writings or the fiery dogmatism of his Gilbert and Leichhardt story’ (neither of which McGregor seems to like very much), and he declares it ‘not a great biography’, though he concedes that Chisholm ‘portrayed her as a woman of exceptional talent and determination’. I think it is far from boring. And for all its sketchiness, it is an important work of Australian women’s history. Not a full biography, by any means, but an enticing glimpse into the life of an artist who was almost continuously pregnant – and working – throughout her eleven years of marriage and died after giving birth to her eighth child. Chisholm himself admitted that ‘much more awaits study’. He wrote sympathetically that ‘Mrs Gould’s letters express the anxiety of a mother separated from three young children, and of a daughter separated from her elderly mother’. This is how the Australian Museum’s website describes the Goulds:

It is an irony that a man who never finished a picture is remembered as one of the most significant bird artists of the Victorian age. More skilled as an entrepreneur than as an artist, Gould relied on his group of dedicated artists, lithographers and colourers to translate his preparatory sketches into finished illustrations. Yet during his lifetime and beyond, Gould has often been represented as the sole creator of the thousands of plates published in his books. The main artists and lithographers who worked with Gould included his wife…[she was] the principal artist behind John Gould’s early publications.

Chisholm was always – by nature – an encyclopaedist. As the exacting Editor-in-Chief of The Australian Encyclopaedia, published in 1958, he kept a close eye on the facts, spelling and grammar of the contributors who were sometimes ‘dilatory and slovenly’, a problem he referred to as ‘contributoritis’. McGregor comments that the Encyclopaedia, ‘was not only national in scope [but]…nationalist in intent’. Surely this might be said of any country’s encyclopaedia at that time.

Chisholm was perfectly in tune with Rachel Carson’s revolutionary Silent Spring, which came out in 1962. One of his newspaper articles carried the headline ‘The Silent Spring is closing in’. He also contributed to Alan John ‘Jock’ Marshall’s combative book The Great Extermination. A guide to Anglo-Australian Cupidity, Wickedness and Waste (1966).

Throughout his life, he continued to fight on many fronts: against the destruction of bushland to make way for questionable building projects, against the development of Centennial Park and Kurraba Point, for the creation of nesting refuges at Dee Why Lagoon, for birding as an antidote to the stresses of urban living. He used strong language to make his conservationist points. In 1971 – in his eighties – he joined Patrick White and other writers in protest against the censorship of Philip Roth’s controversial novel Portnoy’s Complaint. McGregor comments, ‘perhaps the defence lawyers thought that as a rather proper gentleman of advanced years, he would make a favourable impression on the jury’. Certainly he was less colourful than White, who is reported to have said he had no problem with ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’ or ‘prick’ when he read them in books, because they were words he used daily.

Joylessly McGregor describes Chisholm’s memoir The Joy of the Earth, published in 1973, as old-fashioned in style and method. Others were less dismissive. The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, for example, places it more interestingly with contemporaneous memoirs that express anxiety about our country’s beginnings and identity by mythologising the author’s childhood.

McGregor describes his subject in old age as an unveiler of plaques, a committee man, an old grump, someone who sided with popularisers in battles between amateur and professional ornithologists, and someone whose writing became rambling and diffuse.

But at the very time when he was supposed to have been at his most unbearably bad-tempered, it turns out that Chisholm still had plenty of friends. McGregor does mentions his ‘warm friendship’ with his Cremorne Point neighbours, the writers and social activists Dymphna Cusack and Norman Freehill, but his remark – that Chisholm ‘was unfazed by his friends’ hard left politics, though he certainly did not share them’ – seems ill-advised, and a biographical foreshortening. And McGregor misses mentioning other important friends, including Tess and Bern Kloot, who visited Chisholm in Sydney and – ‘self-invited’, Tess notes – he stayed with them in Melbourne. She wrote, ‘His was now a familiar, slight figure in hat and gabardine overcoat, and with suitcase and walking stick. He had piercing blue eyes and a mass of wavy, grey hair…I knew only a kindly man’.

Tess had a lot in common with Chisholm – they both loved birds and books, both had left school early, and as happens with those who are self-educated, acquired an extraordinary knowledge of their fields of interest – and though they did not meet until the last decade of his life, Chisholm and the Kloots became firm friends. When there was an article about him in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 1971, he told her, ‘I am alleged to possess stately and wry wit. Maybe you can enlighten me regarding stately wit’. She replied: ‘Wry it certainly is, at times, but it is always of the highest quality’. Chisholm’s occasional pen name Phil Anthus is another good example of his sense of humour; Beewolves – genus Philanthus – are bee-killing wasps.

The daughter of Russian immigrants – doctors who became farmers, to make a living in Australia – Tess (Tatiana Bulatova) was born in 1923 in Footscray in Victoria. At the age of fourteen she started work at Tafts, her uncle’s pen shop in Collins Street, ‘the only female fountain pen repairer in the Southern Hemisphere’, she claimed, and in an interview described the long queues of soldiers outside the shop, to buy a fountain pen before going off to fight in the Second World War. She spent her lunch hour in the State Library. ‘Eating my lunch on the way gave me 45 minutes in the Library’. By the time I met her, she had been a teacher, researcher, archivist, and biographer. She told marvellous stories about foot-trembling plovers, birds that wash their sandy food before eating, various kinds of anting behaviour she had seen (when birds anoint themselves with ants), and her sightings of silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) – her favourites – their eyes ringed with delicate white feathers, as if wearing spectacles. She spoke as incisively about birds as she did about ‘bird people’ and had written the ‘Biography behind the Bird’ series of articles she inaugurated for the conservationist organisation Birdlife Australia. After Chisholm’s death in 1977, she contributed a ten-page obituary for The Australian Birdwatcher, and again wrote on him for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Her personal anecdotes were always about what he taught her, how they compared their observations, and the fun she and her husband had whenever the three of them met. Tess’s study was full of books, maps and posters, and on her desk there was a photo of Chisholm which Bern had taken in 1976. She died in 2016, aged (almost) 93. While some people found Chisholm to be opinionated, preacherly, tetchy, pushy, his close friends were delighted to know him. The eminent zoologist Jock Marshall once remarked that ‘he was serious but his eyes twinkled’.

In her extensive obituary of Chisholm in The Australian Bird Watcher, Tess Kloot named his achievements. ‘Professional journalist, eminent historian, ornithologist and conservationist’. ‘Years of ceaseless activity, writing, lecturing and travelling…presidencies, secretaryships, editorships’, including as editor-in-chief of the second edition of the Australian Encyclopaedia. An O.B.E. and other honours. She commented that ‘it was hell-fire and brim-stone all the way’ and that ‘he earned the respect – and wrath – of many, but was passionately faithful to the cause he believed in, knowledgeable and interested in everything to the end’. She asked, ‘How then to do justice to the man?’ Hinting at the complexity of that task, she tells of her conversation with the ornithologist and malacologist Tom Iredale, who had exclaimed ‘Chisholm is the most querulous human being on earth!’ And – Kloot confesses – ‘how AHC enjoyed that little story’ when she recounted it to him. I once asked her if he was ‘difficult’ and she said no, he was delightful but ‘he did not suffer fools gladly’. If there was querulousness, there was also camaraderie, and it was Chisholm, with fellow-environmentalist Vince Serventy, who would write Iredale’s obituary. It is said of Serventy that he was ‘green before it was fashionable’.

Early in the biography, Russell McGregor introduces Tess Kloot as an archivist with the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union, which she was, but he fails to mention that she too was an accomplished amateur ornithologist and writer, and (importantly for the biography) that she knew Chisholm. While McGregor refers to her ‘spirited’ obituary and Iredale’s comment, he leaves out the part about AHC having a good laugh and he picks on (in order to unpick) Kloot’s well-informed claim that Chisholm’s ‘dissatisfaction with things as they stood’ – his irascibility – was often the fire that fuelled his actions to defend the natural world. We now call it eco-anger. We know what it feels like. It fires up climate activists around the world. It’s urgent. McGregor thinks that Kloot was merely making ‘a valiant attempt to put a positive gloss on Alec’s crankiness. But it’s not plausible’. Why isn’t it plausible? McGregor suggests Kloot is ‘on firmer ground in recognising Alec’s vanity and his propensity for name dropping’, and he vows to pay due attention to his subject’s ‘flaws and weaknesses’. Kloot is not mentioned again.

In Idling in Green Places, there are some touches of sympathy for Chisholm in old age, such as mentioning his care for his wife during her mental and physical decline, and after her death, his sadness at having to sort her dresses for charity donations. We read about his health problems, the piling up of papers, the messy flat, his death in July 1977, that one obituary was headlined ‘Australia’s greatest naturalist is dead’, that his ashes were scattered near a Gymea lily in the Royal National Park. But even then, we hear once again the biographer’s ambivalent voice, when he concludes that although ‘Alec’s love of nature was of a gentle, romantic kind, often manifested in an almost childish attitude of wide-eyed wonderment at the glories of the birds and animals around him. His vanity, by contrast, could be grating’. McGregor’s judgements, like the idea that Chisholm was ‘a populariser rather than an innovator, a publicist more than an original thinker’, suggest he did not get the full measure of Chisholm and his era. Nonetheless, as the first biography of Australia’s greatest naturalist, with its research based on the State Library of NSW’s substantial Chisholm collection, it is an important book.

A black and white photograph depicting an elaborate set up used to photograph a bird. One man holds a ladder, which is in the back of a horse-drawn cart. On top of the ladder another man is perched, supporting one leg of a very tall tripod that extends down to the ground. On top of the tripod is a box camera which is pointed toward tree branches.
A.H. Chisholm photographing a Shrike-tit’s nest, 1914. Photo by N.M. Chisholm. National Library of Australia.

Birds are curious or shy. Beaked and feathered. Most of them can fly; hummingbirds can fly backwards and upside down. Some birds build complex nests, others find convenient places to lay their eggs. They chirp, sing or call. In captivity they can learn to talk. In her recent book Flight of the Budgerigar, Penny Olsen writes: ‘The ability of the Budgerigar to imitate human speech and other sounds, including kissing, coughing and laughing, is hardly revolutionary news today, but its discovery in the nineteenth century was a revelation’. With a few budgerigars, speech goes beyond mimicry and smalltalk. They can greet you, ask for food, fly off the handle at you, comment sweetly or insidiously, some have a large vocabulary of hundreds of words – one, Puck of Petaluma, California, notched up 1728 – and quite a few are known to have been able to create their own phrases.

Birds seem miraculous and we strive to define them. In the air they are distant from us and their navigations of distance – using the earth’s magnetic field – are part of their allure. When they come close – bird on a wire, bird at the window, bird in the hand – their proximity is often taken as auspicious, or as Chisholm describes it in Bird Wonders of Australia, ‘a gracious experience’. Sentimentality and symbolism play a large part in human interaction with birds. Alberto Manguel writes, ‘Outside my window is a cardinal. There is no way of writing this sentence without dragging in its tow whole libraries of literary allusions’.

Whatever else the cuckoo is – a member of the Cuculidae family, nest builder or brood parasite, solitary or social, diurnal or nocturnal, sedentary or migratory – to the poet William Wordsworth he was a messenger and a mystery, something ‘longed for, never seen’. ‘O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird, Or but a wandering Voice?’

Almost every day a pair of Australian king parrots (Alisterus scapularis) visits us – and lately they’ve been bringing their offspring – for a small offering of sunflower seeds and a chat, and we stop whatever we’re doing, for the ineffable pleasure of that moment. But there are some – the novelist Alexis Wright comes to mind – for whom their relationship with birds is expressive and narratable, as in Wright’s The Swan Book, or her personal stories about Pirate ‘the cockatoo, the hissing white ghost’ who became the boss of her heart.

Always and in countless ways, our existence has been inextricably linked with the lives of birds. With the publication of Silent Spring, the biologist, conservationist and writer Rachel Carson radically redefined this mutuality. She insisted on getting, and giving us, more information. By presenting horrific facts and asking difficult questions, she turned around our attitudes to nature. She asked, ‘Who has placed in one pan of the scales the leaves that might have been eaten by the beetles and in the other the pitiful heaps of many-hued feathers, the lifeless remains of the birds that fell before the unselective bludgeon of insecticidal poisons?’ The book’s index highlights the calamities: birds of the fish-eating kind, killed by insecticides; those whose reproduction is affected adversely by herbicides; those killed by herbicides; killed by aldrin; killed by dieldrin; killed by elm spraying; apparent sterility in (eagles); killed by seed treatment in England; in the United States; killed by fire ant spraying. More hopefully, there are other options, like the ‘encouragement of birds’. Suitable nesting boxes placed in new or rehabilitated forests invite birds to return to those sites, feed on insects that might otherwise destroy trees and help to keep the forest healthy. Carson’s message is a call for people to put away their poisons and act more responsibly.

Descended from feathered therapod dinosaurs, and more ancient than humans, birds can also trigger a kind of primal panic in us, ornithophobia. We flee, because we cannot fly. Or if feathers, specifically, give you the creeps, then it is pteronophobia. Pteronophobics are not necessarily alekterophobics, who dread chickens (thought to be the closest living ancestor of Tyrannosaurus rex). When pteronophobics (believing the touch of a feather is deadly or disgusting) nonetheless choose to keep chickens they wear gloves to care for them and collect the eggs. Alfred Hitchcock, cinema’s great fear-master, was famously afraid of eggs, and his ovaphobia has attracted much analysis.

Set in California, Hitchcock’s ‘natural horror-thriller’ film The Birds was released in 1963. Inside a pet shop the character Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren, asks: ‘Have you ever seen so many seagulls? What do you suppose it is?’ And the pet shop owner answers: ‘Well, there must be a storm at sea. That can drive them inland, you know’. Though in the seagulls’ defence, it must be said that their alarming behaviour in the film was also inspired by a contemporary news report about birds exhibiting signs of extreme distress, which was later found to be due to toxic algae poisoning. Another scene, in which crows attack a group of children, exploits that bird’s folkloric reputation as a harbinger of doom, and its collective noun, a murder of crows. The film abounds with terror. It was also later disclosed (much like our delayed understanding of the dangers of toxic algae) that Tippi Hedren had even more to fear from Hitchcock’s unwanted attention, than from the poor birds that were tied to, or thrown at her during filming.

Melanie Daniels is not sure if the attackers are crows or blackbirds and asks if there is a difference between them. An elderly ornithologist, Mrs Bundy, gives her a quick lecture, ‘There is very definitely a difference… Birds are not aggressive creatures… It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet. Now if it were not for birds…’

Making a similar point, and writing as he always did, about what he learned from watching birds and reading books, in his essay ‘A study in Black and White’ – on the plumage group of Magpies, Wagtails, and Mudlarks – Chisholm noted that magpies were ‘more or less selective in their attitude to humanity [and] don’t usually attack adults or girls but have long memories in respect to boys’. Whether this is true or not is less important than his intimation that birds have attitudes.

I would like to be the elderly ornithologist Mrs Bundy, but have left it too late for expertise. The wonder – a word from Chisholm’s vocabulary, and Wordsworth’s philosophy – started in northern Europe when I was very young, with a red-legged stork in a pond. Family myth has me wading towards it in muddy water and needing to be rescued. In Australia my delight was sparked by black swans, the oowah of kookaburras, and antics of cockatoos; whipbirds and bellbirds in Bermagui; bowerbirds in Katoomba. Elsewhere, by peacocks at Kew Gardens; jays, cardinals and hummingbirds on a roadtrip in North America; azure-winged magpies in Beijing. A Mrs Bundy would get beyond those wide-eyed moments. She would be proficient in bird science, bird lore, and the history of all the ways of ‘catching’ them – salting a bird’s tail – involving cameras and binoculars, cages and aviaries, slingshots and guns, banding, books and recordings. She would know what to say about Eugene Schieffelin, the nineteenth-century Shakespeare-fan and American Acclimatization Society member who (it’s told) released all the birds which the Bard mentions in his plays – including starlings – into the ‘wilds’ of New York’s Central Park, at a time when environmental awareness had not yet taken hold. According to one recent news report, ‘the US is now home to an estimated 200 million European starlings. Thickset and pugnacious, starlings are the bruisers of the avian world’. They damage crops and threaten native species. But their dark feathers shimmer and their eggs are sky blue. They are accomplished mimics, who can be taught to talk. It has been noticed that they have a sense of humour. And their collective aerial extravaganza – murmurations of starlings – is one of nature’s great shows. A modern Mrs Bundy would know that some birds also have a sense of smell, that male fairy-wrens sing to their eggs, that some birds adjust to urbanisation and climate change, while others are destroyed by it. She would watch the live streaming of Peregrine Falcons nesting at 367 Collins Street in Melbourne, while reading J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine… and negotiate between the two. She would know about bird fanciers and their lung disease. About the annual shooting and cruel trapping of millions of songbirds in Northern Italy and Cyprus, and the shooting-for-fun of storks over Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, a resting point on the storks’ migratory flyway between Europe and Africa. The Polish embassy in Beirut started a campaign to stop the annual massacre of what they called Polish storks (of course, they are nobody’s storks), but the crime, and the campaign, continue. Around the world hundreds of millions of birds are killed for fun. A roving Mrs Bundy might be a listener in the park in Berlin when the composer David Rothenberg plays music with nightingales, or in a concert hall when the recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey collaborates with vocalisations of Australasian butcher birds. Listening to Mozart, Mrs B would recall the composer’s love for birds, and the special place in his heart for his pet starling.

For my sixtieth birthday I presented myself with a day-long birding excursion in southern Sydney. The guide and group gathered at the WEA in the city. A bus took us to the shores and heathlands of Botany Bay. We were each given a long checklist of birds we might see. Everyone schlepped expensive equipment; they eyed my opera glasses with pity. Gulls and godwits, terns and plovers, sanderlings and oystercatchers caused momentary excitement, were snapped, counted, and ticked off the list. Where had I put my list? The obdurate group shouldered their tripods and things-on-straps and kept moving. I plodded along. On a windy cliff-top, two men in puffer jackets – sculpted from the down of unlucky ducks or geese – almost came to blows over the correct name for a speck on the far horizon. The loudest squawking and flapping occurred in the bus, at the end of the day, when this group of twitchers compared the varieties and numbers of birds they had seen, and boasted about the rare ones. I was no good at this. I had landed with the wrong crowd and yearned for Audubon, Michelet and Chisholm, among others (the Goulds, the Cayleys, Thoreau) most of whom were not ‘true naturalists’.

Ornithologists learn from nature and from each other; ornithology is a network of congruence and argument. Linnaeus influenced Gilbert White, who met and corresponded with Joseph Banks and Johann Forster, and influenced Charles Darwin. The French historian Jules Michelet – Roland Barthes said he was ‘an eater of history’ and his richness of style ‘swallows itself’ – admired the American artist John James Audubon, whose ‘colossal work… subjugated the public’ with its astonishing realism. The website of the National Audubon Society proclaims that it ‘protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation’, and draws our attention to Audubon himself, whose ‘contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day’. While some of Michelet’s historical notions are also controversial, in his book The Bird he showed a progressive environmental and ecological awareness.

Chisholm would have been keenly aware of Audubon and Michelet. Born in the nineteenth century, he still belonged partly to that earlier time and mindset, when natural history was a craze and colonialism was rarely questioned. For instance, in the Preface to his book Nature Fantasy in Australia, he wrote: ‘My chief indebtedness in the making of this volume is to Governor Phillip and those other brave souls who defied a multitude of tribulations in establishing Sydney, the first white settlement of Australia’. There is no proper mention of the large scale tragedies caused by white settlement to Aboriginal people, nor of their deep connection with the land. That was in 1932, on the cusp of great historical upheaval, when Australia (like many other places) was shoring up its national identity. By 1969, in his memoir The Joy of the Earth, a shift had occurred. He recalled his childhood ‘discomfort around ironbark forests’ and his sense that those trees seemed to be ‘revengeful phantoms of the black men who had frequented these forests’.

Was Chisholm (far from perfect, like the others) our Audubon, our Michelet, our Thoreau? (For even America’s wilderness-darling Henry David Thoreau’s views have been scrutinised).

In her article ‘Encounters with amnesia – confronting the ghosts of Australian landscape’, Inga Simpson has suggested that because of ‘our short and ugly history on this continent’, there is a ‘colonial cringe towards Australian flora and fauna’ – we are ‘illiterate in nature’ – therefore, she argues, we also undervalue our nature writers. But that does not ring true. Firstly, human relationships with nature are always a mix of reverence and apprehension; biophobia (when it occurs) is not a uniquely Australian phenomenon. Secondly, Australian literature – its Indigenous stories, explorers’ letters and diaries, and more than two centuries of poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction – has nature at its core. As Chisholm argues in his anthology Land of Wonder, the best kind of nature writing does not always occur as a distinctive genre, and ‘it is not essential to be an ologist, of any kind, in order to shed fresh light on phases of the nature scene…anywhere, alertness is the only real necessity’.

Land of Wonder appeared in 1964, with beautiful drawings on silk by Margaret Coen. Her daughter, the writer Meg Stewart, has told me:

it was really exciting when Mum was asked to do the illustrations – I’m sort of guessing that this was pretty much organized by my father through his role at Angus and Robertson – and its publication was quite an event in our household.

Chisholm’s selection – including writers like D.H. Lawrence and M.L. Skinner, Hal Porter, Joseph Banks, Louisa Meredith, Joseph Furphy, Rica Erikson, Eric Rolls, Hilda Geissmann, Charles Darwin – shows his own wide reading, and his belief (as expressed in the Introduction) that ‘nature writing is compounded of both information and imagination’. Chisholm was proud of featuring many women writers. But the book lacked Aboriginal perspectives, and he was aware of this shortcoming.

Simon Schama showed in Landscape and Memory that landscape is ‘a text on which generations write their recurring obsessions’ and showed myriad ways in which nature is invested with myth and meaning, not least in the dangerous building of national identities. In this respect, as Russell McGregor explains in relation to Alec Chisholm,

Alec’s yoking of nature to nation differed from the “scenic nationalism” identified by American historians Roderick Nash and Alfred Runte as a major impetus behind the preservation of wilderness in North America. Their scenic nationalism privileged awe-inspiring natural wonders such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, as substitutes for the celebrated and stately cultural monuments of the Old World. Its aesthetics emphasised the sublime in nature. Alec’s nature, by contrast, was much more homely. The nature he wanted Australians to identify with, was primarily, the nature they could experience just beyond their back fences: the gum trees and birds, gullies and hills familiar to the residents of the populous parts of the country.

Is homely the right word? Chisholm once said that ‘ornithological study should begin at home and extend to every available source’ (my italics), and he also turned the mirror on overseas ornithologists who ‘neglected Australia’ and he called them ‘insular’.

These are some more of the flaws McGregor mentions. That Alec ‘retained an emotional reticence in interpersonal relations throughout his life’, with the comment that ‘perhaps he considered that normal’. That Alec promoted nature tourism as an ally of conservationism and went along with the development of Australian cities, without predicting the twenty-first century crises which mass tourism and urbanisation’s destruction of native habitats would bring. That his conservationism did not go far enough, lacking interest (for example) in the sandhills and salt marshes of Botany Bay, that he was too easy on introduced species of birds. He thinks that many photographs by or of Chisholm ‘were masterpieces of nature photography in their day’, but they now seem crude and quaint. In contrast, Tess Kloot could see that Chisholm ‘tried his hand at photography at a time when this art took Herculean strength and the patience of Job. Fine examples of his work hung on the walls of his flat and appeared in many publications’.

Then there is the suspenseful story of Chisholm’s quest to find the Paradise Parrot. In Bird Wonders of Australia, he wrote: ‘When residing in Queensland I sought the Paradise Parrot for five years… before a solitary pair was discovered. What a lovely little bird its is! – perhaps the most exquisite of all Parrots’. But the Paradise Parrot was already close to extinction by the end of the nineteenth century, when its habitat of grassy woodlands was largely destroyed by graziers. Chisholm believed the aviary trade and feral cats were also to blame. And amateur collectors’ overfondness for rare specimens did not help. He saw those collectors ‘as a relic of barbarism and a perversion of civilisation…a relic of sin, masquerading under the honoured name of science’ (The Emu, 1922). He kept looking for the Paradise Parrot, and was reluctant to accept its extinction. The leading authority on the Paradise Parrot is now Penny Olsen, and according to McGregor, she dislikes the way Chisholm big-notes himself and believes he was too much talk and not enough action, when he could have done more in the 1920s to save the species.

McGregor keeps shrugging his shoulders at Chisholm’s anthropomorphism, his conviction that birds have an aesthetic sensibility, his ‘lyrically romantic style of writing’, his impatience with people he called nitwits, boot-lickers, and sloppy, his criticism of ugliness whenever he encountered it (such as the concrete enclosures of Taronga Zoo in its early days, crude building developments across Sydney, and certain unappealing bird names that he wanted to change). ‘Perhaps it was testament to his honesty as a writer’, McGregor comments, ‘that he exposed his misgivings to the gaze of the reader. Or perhaps he was just confused’. There is no evidence that Chisholm was confused.

In her review of McGregor’s Idling in Green Places in Australian Book Review, Danielle Clode remarked:

Focusing on the person rather than their work sometimes detracts from the very thing that makes them appealing. Chisholm is interesting because of his love of nature and his ability to communicate his fascination…I kept hoping the story would focus more on what Chisholm was doing and what he was looking at (the major conservation battles and the wildlife) rather than his personality.

I agree. But I would also argue in the other direction, for more personal and cultural context, not less, because Chisholm’s life and work fit the biographical tradition of highly individualistic naturalists, the kind (like Sibylla Merian, Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Linnaeus, Joseph Banks, George Caley, Henry David Thoreau, Marianne North, Rachel Carson, Althea Sherman, Rosalie Edge) whose passions fascinate us, and from whom we learn as much about human nature as the natural world they studied and brought to us.

Let me repeat Kloot’s question, ‘How then to do justice to the man?’ The popular writer Ion ‘Jack’ Idriess once portrayed him as

wild and woolly, bad-tempered, but absolutely mad enthusiastic at his job. I’ve seen him sitting up a tree, boiled by the sun, frozen by the night cold, with a silly lookin’ photograph machine in his hand taking a stupid looking picture of a mother bird with her squawking young, hours and hours of numb misery…intellectual men do those sort of things, they tell me…the bird man and he looks like a bird, too.

For his part, Chisholm told Idriess that his journalism was junk, full of inaccuracies and bad grammar. Despite the ribbing, they were friends, and co-campaigners against the trapping and trafficking of birds.

Hat, glasses, pipe, binoculars, notebook, often a camera, sometimes a ladder, and back at his desk, the Corona typewriter which served him for sixty years. That was Chisholm’s outfit. A century ago, he really was one of Australia’s most influential exponents of the natural world. His friends and fans included politicians, artists and writers, children and teachers. His approach was generous and miscellaneous, with constant attempts to get children interested in nature. He corresponded with a group of nuns who – unencumbered by their tunics and veils – emulated him in climbing trees to inspect birds’ nests. Towards the end of his life, residing in the Sydney suburb of Cremorne Point, he liked to walk along one of the city’s most beautiful tracks, which traces around a peninsula and bay to Mosman, through patches of what is now classified as Regrowth Sydney Sandstone Gully Forest. The writer David Malouf lived nearby and they sometimes walked together. What did they talk about? ‘Birds. Poetry’. This brings to mind the place of birds in Malouf’s own writing, of course, and the work of others. Keats’ nightingale, Shelley’s skylark, Sylvia Plath’s shrike, Adrienne Rich’s dark birds of history, Seamus Heaney conjuring a flock of words in ‘St Francis and the Birds’.

Chisholm would have had his own literary favourites, he was a keen reader. He was ‘mad enthusiastic’ about birds and words; he spoke well. In a letter to Tess Kloot, when she commented on his elocution, he said that in his youth he had done ‘a good deal of stage strutting’ and she and her husband were lucky, when they visited, that ‘I did not assail you with a scene or two from The Tempest’. An autodidact who in so many ways surpassed others in his wealth of knowledge, he often shared this performatively, and was in great demand as a lecturer. I’ve heard that on Bird Day, inaugurated by the Gould League of Bird Lovers and first held in November 1911, his talks at school assemblies, encouraging students’ interest in nature while also urging them not to collect eggs, harm birds, nor keep them in cages, were charismatic.

Some of Chisholm’s critics have disliked his tendency to put himself at the centre of events. But there seems to be an affinity between naturalists and theatricality. The comedian Bill Bailey is also a bird watcher and in his Remarkable Guide to British Birds, he continues in the role of jester. He writes about the ubiquity of the house sparrow; he had seen one eating ‘a chunk of dropped bread under the table of an outdoor New York restaurant, as well as scratching its ear on a hotel roof in the Southern Alps of New Zealand’ and comments that he had done both those things himself. The great oologist and curator for the Bird Group at the Natural History Museum at Tring, Michael P. Walters, was a Shakespearean actor and musical theatre performer, and he relished finding such dramatic talent in others. He once heard the egg collector Desmond Nethersole-Thompson ‘give the most memorable lecture of my life… This man just stood up with nothing except his personality, and talked to us about his Greenshanks (Tringa nebularia) on the Scottish moors. He was a born actor… you were out on the moors with him’. And surely Sir David Attenborough is also a seasoned actor, and occasional comedian. In his Introduction to The Natural History of Selbourne, Richard Mabey described Gilbert White as ‘one of the first documentarists’ and suggests ‘if he was living today he would probably be making natural history films’. I think Chisholm too would be a nature film maker.

Chisholm not only spoke well about nature, he also wrote well, and expressed his fascination to readers. As in his description of this scene: ‘Some of the most restfully charming bird-music I have ever heard was produced by a tawny-crowned honeyeater as daylight faded over a sombre [Sydney] plateau’. Or this: ‘We were driving along a vagrant road through a forest, a geological professor, a forestry officer and myself, when at some indefinite spot, with no apparent difference in vegetation, we became aware of the nearby chiming of bell-birds. Sharp little gushes of sound splashed down from every tree’. Or his painterly description of ‘one of the most beautiful birds in the world’, the male Australian King Parrot, ‘a shapely creature with breast and head aflame with scarlet, with the back delicate green, and with a butterfly on each wing’. This fanciful touch – of describing the iridescent turquoise streak on the parrot’s dark green wing as a butterfly, suggesting wings on wings – sets Chisholm apart.

Above all, his writing conveyed a strong sense of place. One of the best examples was ‘The Witchery of Mallacoota’, published 26 March 1919 in The Sydney Mail, which included his photographs. In his inimitable manner, like a stage manager or an artist opening a leporello, he leads the reader through a series of scenes set in east Gippsland. He arrives at a ‘lovely and lonely inlet’ guarded by sandbanks, where ‘no craft of any size can enter’, with even greater difficulties getting out again. ‘In our case, a coastal steamer was persuaded to heave to outside the inlet, a motor-boat did the rest, and by midday we were toiling up a sharp pinch to the Lake View Hotel – a small, squat farmhouse that…had plenty of lake view and decidedly little hotel’. Like the visitors, the waterways wander inland from the shore. ‘It is this wandering of the waters that constitutes the chief charm of Mallacoota’. Genoa river and lake spread their arms into ‘the heavily-timbered hills. And the hills seem keen on reciprocating the affection, for they run right down to the water’s edge’. At certain points the viewer is enticed with glimpses of park-like country to the west, a rim of mountains, fishermen at sunset, black swans. To know its beauty, the author is saying, you have to go there. Kloot suggested ‘an interesting exercise would be to list all the headings of the different notepaper he ever used – a clue to all the places he visited’.

He came to Mallacoota to see birds and he found kingfishers, Golden-breasted whistlers, whipbirds, honey-eaters, wrens, silver-eyes, bell-miners, Satin bower-birds and lyre-birds, as well as the ones that hide in the undergrowth, the ‘rare, dainty little Emu-wren’, the Eastern bristlebird and the fast running Ground parrot. His delight at this abundance was only upset by the need to look out for snakes. He was ‘the bird-seeker, meandering along with his eyes and mind divorced from things terrestrial’ and always in danger of stepping on a snake. It is a common fear, half the world suffers from (or as science suggests, in survival mode, we are blessed with) ophidiophobia. Chisholm is brave to go rummaging through the East Gippsland bush, risking an encounter with venomous Tiger snakes, Lowland Copperheads, Red Bellied Black snakes, and speedy Eastern Brown snakes. At the mere mention of them, many of us would be back at the Lake View Hotel, bird watching with binoculars. Describing the ‘persistent undergrowth’ and his defiance of snakes, Chisholm’s essay bursts with observations and excitement.

He clearly loved the place, as he had visited it before, in 1914, and written about it in an article published in 1915. McGregor sees it differently: that Chisholm found the ‘Mallacoota forest claustrophobic’, and that his friendship there with local poet, fellow journalist, literary magazine editor and socialist E. J. Brady was odd, which is itself an odd comment. Brady was interesting and intelligent. He had, for instance, published the writer Katherine Mansfield early in her career, and she had written to him ‘Dear Sir…You ask for some details as to myself. I am poor – obscure – just eighteen years of age – with a voracious appetite for everything – and principles as light as my prose…’. Brady’s circle of friends included Nettie and Vance Palmer, Henry Lawson and Katharine Susannah Prichard. Prichard portrayed him as ‘the most dazzling editor I’d ever imagined. Lank gingery gold hair falling over his forehead, and a golden beard cut to a point. His eyes flashed green and blue lightnings as he talked, and his long legs sprawled under the office table’. When he complimented her on one of her stories, it made her feel like a genius. I can see Chisholm and Brady, with literature in common and a lot else to discuss, getting along just fine. In 1942, Chisholm was best man at Brady’s wedding to his fourth wife, the artist Florence Jane Bourke.

Idling in Green Places mentions many who crossed Chisholm’s path: fellow bird watcher and photographer Norman Chaffer, poet and journalist C. J. Dennis (whose biography he wrote), and geologist Professor Sydney Skertchly who corresponded with Charles Darwin, to name just a few. But Chisholm’s life was so thoroughly bound up with people, that I feel he requires a more intimate biography, one that also has more to say about his own family – his wife Olive and daughter Deirdre – and his affection for people like Mary Gilmore, Romeo Lahey, Harry Wolstenholme, Edmund Banfield, Vince Serventy, Jack Idriess, Tess Kloot, and in Mallacoota, Brady and his ‘little band of bird-loving children’, as well as interests he shared with fellow-collectors – bibliophiles like John Kinmont (Jack) Moir and Father Edward Leo Hayes – and their encyclopaedic worlds, or the German wildlife photographer and filmmaker Heinz Sielmann, who visited Australia in 1963-64. McGregor mentions that just before his death, Chisholm wanted to fly to Brisbane and – as well as seeing a number of people and places – he ‘intended visiting his friend Hilda Curtis on Tamborine Mountain’. At that stage of his life, it was a significant wish. But the biography has nothing else to say about their friendship, which goes back to his early days in Queensland. She was better known as the naturalist and photographer Hilda Geissmann, a botanical explorer of the area near her home, where she always took secateurs on her walks, to cut through thick scrub. And she was the one who had sent Olive an arrangement of red flowers to decorate the table of their pre-wedding dinner.

McGregor assesses Chisholm’s visit to Mallacoota in November 1914, by noting that he had photographed and remarked on – ‘without a hint of censure’ – a group of birders with guns. And that ‘the First World War had been raging for three months’, and news of the fighting would have reached Mallacoota daily by telegraph, but Chisholm made no mention of it, nor ever explained his own ‘failure to enlist’, while two of his brothers went to war and ‘returned broken men’. The reasons for Chisholm’s ‘failure’, McGregor surmises, may have been due to the family’s decision to keep one of their sons at home, to help them financially. It would be good to know more about the Chisholm family. After all, it was his brother Norman who had taken the famous photo of Alec on a ladder photographing a Shrike-tit’s nest, and who later died from illness related to his war injuries.

In 1919, when Chisholm leaves Mallacoota and the small settlement of Genoa – which, he quips, lacked the ‘enchantment with which Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt first beheld the Italian habitation of that name’ – and heads out towards Orbost, he hears ‘those undeniable imports, the sparrow, starling, and goldfinch’ sing their part in the dawn chorus. They were the offspring of birds brought to Australia in the nineteenth century, when Edward Wilson, founder of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society, proclaimed ‘if it lives, we want it’. Although Chisholm was patriotically Australian and an environmentally-aware naturalist, like many of his compatriots at that time, he did not mind the newcomers. But his biographer believes it was more than mere tolerance: that Chisholm was charmed by introduced birds, many of which can still be seen and heard in southern and eastern parts of Australia, and it remains a difficult and divisive topic.

While Chisholm (in Nature Fantasy in Australia) mentioned his liking for the imported European skylark and goldfinch, he looked down on sparrows as ‘plebeian migrants…out of harmony with the landscape and out of sympathy with…the spirit of the land’. More or less concurring with this view, Eric Rolls – our best-known chronicler of imported species – believed that ‘the sparrow is too familiar – in an obtrusive sense – to be welcome’. He agrees that it does not seem to do serious harm, and thinks it is the bird’s unremarkable appearance and character ‘that makes us dislike it’.

In Western Australia appearance counts for nothing: the most drab and the most gorgeous intruders can be declared pests. In August 2021, the West Australian Department of Industries and Primary Development announced a Biosecurity alert: ‘Sparrows have recently been reported around Kununurra and Wyndham in the east Kimberley region. A surveillance and removal program is underway’. Likewise for the Rainbow Lorikeet, which was introduced into that state in the 1960s, and is considered a ‘major pest of agriculture’. Though forms of agriculture are themselves an ‘import’.

In the UK, Bill Bayley laments that house sparrows are disappearing but no one knows why. He mentions a number of possible reasons: pesticides, predators, and loss of greenery in cities where sparrows like to live. He does not blame buildings. In Chicago the conservationist (and actor) Arthur Melville Pearson photographs and bags sparrows and other birds that become confused by reflections, crash into tall buildings, and fall from the sky. Around the world millions of birds die like that every year. He takes the dead birds to the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors (CBCM) and then to the Field Museum. He calls it a ‘melancholy task’ and posts the photographs on his blog. He writes, ‘Dark-eyed juncos are flashy little sparrows, their tail feathers like black and white semaphore flags as they flit about forest floors. Like many North American birds, they spend their summers breeding in Canada, then head south for the winter. Some travel only as far as Chicago, where they endure the cold and snow along with those of us who don’t turn into snowbirds and spend the winter in Florida. This little guy made it to Chicago but no further. His life ended violently, beak to building, breaking his neck instantly and then falling to the 26th floor outdoor deck where I work’.

A colour photograph of a small white and brown bird, which appears to be dead, rested on its side upon a wooden surface.
Dark-eyed junco. Photo by Arthur Melville Pearson.

Like glass-curtain-walled architecture, the current ‘Birds Aren’t Real’ movement was not conceived with birds in mind. It is ‘a Gen-Z fuelled conspiracy theory which posits that birds are really drone replicas installed by the US government to spy on Americans’ and has now revealed itself (lest its kamikaze tactics go wonky) as a ‘parody social movement with a purpose’. They have attracted two opposing factions. On the dumb side there are those who really believe birds have been replaced by drones and these believers would also be the ones to shoot down drone-birds that invade their privacy. On the clever side there are those who grew up in a world Trumped-up to tipping point with misinformation. This side calls itself the Bird Brigade. Their prank is their revenge. They say their goal is to encourage media literacy. Are they successful? Or more like the watchman who dreamed the Titanic was sinking and tried to tell someone?

There is a crisis of misinformation, for sure, and it is important to combat it. But there is a worse crisis – of information, and how to process it – closely tied to the climate crisis, political crises, human and animal rights abuses, action and ineffectiveness. We’re shocked and saddened by what we know. We’re often overwhelmed. It was recently reported in The Guardian that North America ‘could lose 389 of 604 species studied to threats from rising temperatures, higher seas, heavy rains and urbanization’, one in five of Europe’s bird species ‘is slipping towards extinction’, ‘one in six Australian birds are now threatened’. Perhaps the Birds Aren’t Real movement will morph into Birds Are Real, to tackle those urgent issues.

Natural history is deeply rooted in, and benefits from, connections between the personal and the scientific. There is a blog called ‘Cassin’s Sparrow – Why Blog About Cassin’s Sparrow?’ which explains that there is plenty of information on birds but less on ‘the story of how we know’ about them, ‘the historic, cultural, political, and scientific processes behind their discovery…[and] this blog tries to fill that gap’, as well as ascertaining ‘what Cassin’s Sparrow can teach us about life on Earth’ and ‘why it matters to know these things’. The author is John Schnase, an American biologist and computer scientist who calls Cassin’s Sparrow his ‘sherpa bird’. ‘Its plaintive song and spectacular skylarks have been a constant source of solace and joy in my life’. Similarly, Alec Chisholm’s observations, vivid descriptions, and emotional attachments to birds and locations are part of a larger ornithological and cultural history.

Chisholm’s favourites included the extremely elusive, also called ‘cryptic’, ground-dwelling Rufous Scrub-birds, that he first saw in Queensland’s Lamington National Park and described as ‘quiet in plumage’ with ‘resonant voices’. Interested in ‘birds that steal sounds’, he noted that the ‘mimetic ability is especially evident in certain ground-dwelling birds – which maintain guard with hearing rather than vision and therefore are particularly sensitive to sounds…’ According to the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, this bird is a living fossil that evolved 97–65 million years ago. And according to Birdlife International, this species’ status now swings between vulnerable and endangered. ‘It has a very small, severely fragmented area of occupancy, and is experiencing habitat destruction and a continuing population decline. Inappropriate management continues to threaten the quality of its habitat and there are concerns that drying caused by increasingly erratic climate conditions may lead to its disappearance from much of its current range; (eg recent research suggests it may suspend its breeding when winter rainfall is low)’. Over forty per cent of its habitat (which it shares with other species) was burnt during the catastrophic bushfires which raged across Australia, especially the eastern states, from September 2019 until March 2020.

In Victoria, Mallacoota became one of the isolated communities most seriously affected by those Black Summer fires. On television and social media the world watched the humanitarian and environmental crisis unfold. An apocalyptic red haze engulfed people who huddled in groups on the beach or sheltered on boats on the lake, before the navy and air force rescued them. Large parts of the town and surrounding bushland were destroyed. Across Australia 24 million hectares were burnt, people and animals died or were injured, there was widescale loss of property. It all came with predictions of more frequent fires and more megafires, due to human-induced climate change.

At every opportunity, Chisholm warned his readers and audiences. In Land of Wonder he included a piece by Leonard E. B. Stretton, the judge who headed the Royal Commission into the Black Friday bushfires – ‘the worst in memory’ – that devastated Victoria in 1939. Stretton wrote, ‘The speed of the fires was appalling… Blown by a wind of great force, they roared as they travelled…Balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires, consuming with an explosive noise all that they touched’. And ‘Where the fire was most intense the soil was burnt and destroyed to such depth that it may be many years before it shall have been restored by the slow chemistry of nature’.

In 2020 in Mallacoota, many thousands of birds died, their bodies found in gardens, forests and along the coast. Photographers captured the devastation. Some birds survived in spots protected by water bombing, but later suffered from loss of food sources. I asked a Mallacoota bird watcher about the ground dwelling birds and she replied, ‘I suspect there is not a Southern Emu-wren or Ground Parrot left alive between here and Wingham Inlet’. She told me that when the fire was at its worst and threatened the rare and critically endangered Eastern Bristlebirds’ habitat of Howe Flat across the water from Mallacoota, a group of specialists was flown in and managed to collect fifteen Bristlebirds, to be cared for at Melbourne Zoo; six succumbed to stress and died; nine survived; one had a broken leg and was kept at the Zoo; eight were returned to Howe Flat and released. There have been recent sightings of young Bristlebirds in the Howe Flat area.

a small brown bird stands on twigs and leaves
Eastern Bristlebird. New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment.

Works Cited

Bailey, Bill, Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to British Birds (2017)
Baker, J. A., The Peregrine (1967)
Chisholm, A. H., Mateship with Birds (1922)
– Nature Fantasy in Australia (1932)
– Bird Wonders of Australia (1934)
– Strange New World: The Adventures of John Gilbert and Ludwig Leichardt (1955)
– ‘A Study in Black and White’, Bird Wonders of Australia (1956)
– Land of Wonder – The Best Australian Nature Writing (selected and edited, 1964)
– Joy of the Earth (1969)
– ‘The Story of the Scrub-birds’, Emu (1951)
Clode, Danielle, ‘Idling in Green Places: A Life of Alec Chisholm’, Australian Book Review Jan-Feb 2020
Doyle, Arthur Conan, Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921)
Greenoak, Francesca, All the Birds of the Air – The Names, Lore and Literature of British Birds (1981)
Idriess, Ion, in David Foster (ed), Self-Portraits (1991)
Kennedy, J.S., The New Anthropomorphism (1992)
Kloot, Tess, Ellen M. McCulloch, and Rex Davies (illustrations), Some garden birds of south-east Australia, (1970); Papers of Tess Kloot, State Library of Victoria, Accession no: YMS 15578
Lorenz, Taylor, ‘A Counter-Conspiracy takes flight’, New York Times (9 December 2021)
McGregor, Russell, Idling in Green Places – A life of Alec Chisholm (2019)
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Rolls, Eric C., They All Ran Wild – The Story of Pests on the Land in Australia (1969)
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Walters, Michael, A Concise History of Ornithology – The Lives and Works of its Founding Figures (2003); ‘My Life with Eggs’, Zoologische Mededelingen, vol 79-3,
p5-18 (2005)
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