Book review: Wildlife of Australia

Within hours of receiving my copy of Wildlife of Australia, it had become compulsory bed-time reading. My daughter began a personal assignment on Megapodes … literally, translating as ‘bigfoot’, these are Australlia’s mound-building nesters. We had seen an Australian Brush-turkey tending a huge nest on Lindeman Island earlier in the year and she was fascinated to find out more about them.

"Wildlife of Australia" cover.

That evening, we read about wombats, gliders and possums. My son found out that Green Ring-tailed Possums eat their own poo, an adaptation for getting as much nutrient as possible from poorly digestible leaves and fruits. A fact he was swift to share at school the next day.

As a child, my book-shelves contained similar ‘encyclopaedias’ of birds and wildlife. I learnt much of what I knew from an early age, cross-referencing these with my own experiences and the natural history programs on television. Wildlife of Australia is this type of book. Being an immediate a hit with my kids, it hasn’t ended up on the shelves of my study, it has instead been passed about the house, providing an occasional respite to daily life.

At a little over 400 pages long, it’s a hefty book but in a pleasantly compact format. I suppose the publishers could have gone for a large coffee-table-sized publication but this would have detracted from the reading pleasure. Lousie Egerton’s writing is beautiful and articulate and this is the sort of book that should be popular with anyone. It is almost like reading a biography … of Australian wildlife. It’s about the size of one and fits comfortably on the bedside table, or on the lap.

There are too few non-academic ‘guides’ to wildlife in Australia and therefore, too few non-academic Australians that have much clue about the diversity and importance of species that inhabit the continent. The chapter on Bandicoots for example, will tell you there are 11 species, which ones are likely to be seen in your neighbourhood, how they dig conical-shaped holes in lawns and the benefits this provides, as they graze on pest chafer larvae.

Rather than over-whelming us with biological facts (thankfully they’ve even avoided the need to pepper the book with scientific names), Louise simply describes how the animal makes a living and what makes it unique or different from other Australian animals. There isn’t much that exists commonly or popularly in Australia that isn’t referenced at least once. It’s fantastically and lavishly illustrated by Jiri Lochman, who has devoted all his life to documenting Australia’s natural history. Every open page has several photos … including some wildlife rarely seen or heard of.

The book features over 500 photographs of wildlife.

It’s a challenge to start learning about creatures, particularly in a mega-diversity country like Australia. A colleague who runs bird tours recently said they watched visitors struggle to look up birds in a book. They’d thumb through page-by-page, having no idea how birds are arranged into groups. It’s something we (birders) take for granted but most people wouldn’t have a clue how to start. The birds chapter of Wildlife of Australia simply begins by describing the difference between passerines and non-passerines, before taking the reader through the different families.

Despite its undemanding approach, this is still a precise and informative piece of natural history writing. I can find little fault with the basic facts, which is no surprise given the experience and reputation of its authors. Wildlife of Australia will certainly help create a next-generation interest, awareness and greater appreciation of our valuable nature.

To my surprise and joy, I learnt something new within a few minutes of opening the book. Just a week earlier, I had posted a photo on Wildiaries, of sticky silk threads hanging from a dirt bank near a river in the Otway Ranges. I had thought they were from glow-worms. I’d seen something similar on an Attenborough documentary. Sure enough, there on p404 of Wildlife of Australia was the confirmatory evidence in the form of one of Jiri’s photos.

Not much has changed in thirty odd years. Despite working with and studying nature for most of my life, I still find myself cross-referencing my own experiences with natural history TV programs and books like Wildlife of Australia. This is one of those indispensable encyclopaedias of wildlife that every house-hold should own.

Wildiaries • November 2012