Feathered Art & Emboldened Science: A Review of The Australian Bird Guide

Monday, May 01, 2017

By Rachel Fetherston

The greatest challenge for any wildlife artist is transcribing the movement, the vividness, the life of untameable nature onto a blank canvas. Capturing a moment in an organism’s lifetime using pencil and brushstrokes is a skill attempted by many, but reserved for few. Whilst photographs can convey a similar snapshot of life, sketches and paintings possess a distinctive allure; they can incite discussion and even argument in regards to accuracy and representation, whilst a photo is often accepted as fact. The portrayal of nature in art is based just as much on the reality of the environment as it is on the personal perspective of the artist themselves, so it is no surprise that critics often lament the supposed failure of many to precisely portray what nature really is in a realistic sense.

But really, what is precise about nature? We should know by now that art is an imitation of nature, and not a carbon copy. In many ways, though, the artwork throughout The Australian Bird Guide (ABG) achieves both a sense of realism and a muster of the imaginative. It is a field guide, yes, so accuracy is important, but this does not take away from the sometimes inexplicable appeal of the artwork as just being a beautiful thing to admire. In this sense, the guide is one for the highly experienced twitchers, the amateur birders, the lovers of art, and everyone in between – it has everything to satisfy the clinical, the curious, and the creative when it comes to the world of Australian birds. Ten years in the making from a team of three authors and three artists (plus many more contributing behind the scenes), ABG is already proving to be the natural history publishing event of the year. The question on many birders’ minds, though, is whether it will live up to the hype. As I’ve already intimated, there is no doubt that it does.

The diverse styles of all three artists shine through, although they still collaboratively form an exceptional collection of outstanding plates, each complementing the other. Jeff Davies’ exquisitely refined seabird and shorebird illustrations, Peter Marsack’s incredible eye for depicting bushbirds, and Kim Franklin’s fantastic knowledge of waterfowl make ABG a wonder to behold for those who have been waiting for updated portraits of Australia’s unique birdlife. To pick a favourite is naturally a difficult task, but Davies’ night parrot portrayals are of course one of the highlights, the plate being the first ever published to include a depiction of a juvenile. With the continuing excitement surrounding sightings in both Queensland and Western Australia, there is no doubt that this alone will encourage many to purchase the guide. Marsack’s bowerbird plates are also stand-outs for me, whilst Franklin’s various duck plates are incredibly striking.


Last but certainly not least, the collaborative work of authors Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers and Rohan Clarke has transformed what could have been a standard working field guide to an exemplary collection of ornithological information, completely up-to-date with the latest findings. In particular, the distribution maps are remarkable. It can certainly be said that one will not find a more comprehensive, thoroughly researched field guide on Australian birds anytime soon. A bonus (or perhaps necessity in a superior guide such as this) is an introductory essay from Dr Leo Joseph that explores the distinct evolution of Australian birds and the history behind their taxonomy.

From the perspective of someone who is far from an artist and at best an amateur birder, this publication will be an immediate purchase. Whether taken into the field, or resting stoically amongst a shelf of other guides to be perused whenever the mood takes you, this book will no doubt rapidly become a classic of Australian natural history publications – a wealth of art and information in one neatly bound package, sitting atop the field guide pecking order.  

The Australian Bird Guide will be published by CSIRO Publishing and is due to be released in May 2017. You can preorder your copy from Andrew Isles Natural History Books by clicking this link. See our range of special offers here.