Origins of Australian Ornithology : The Evolution of Australia’s Bird Reference Books

Welcome to Bird Week!

It is bird week from the 21st -27th of October. During this week, we would like to share with you some of the wonderful rare reference books on Australian birds and the stories behind them. These books have been digitised by the Biodiversity Heritage Library and are freely available in open access. The scientific reference works showcased this week include books from 1781 through to 1931. Ornithologists used these books to describe new species found within Australia and added to the growing number of previously undescribed birds during this time.


Title page. Latham, John. A General Synopsis of Birds. (1781-1785). Digitised in BHL by Smithsonian Libraries.

A General Synopsis of Birds consists of three volumes each with two parts, published from 1781 to 1785, with supplements in 1787 and 1801. Latham worked from descriptions by explorer William Dampier and Sir Joseph Banks, who sailed on the first voyage to Australia as the naturalist aboard Captain James Cook’s Endeavour from 1768 -1771. All volumes have been digitised by Smithsonian Libraries and can be viewed in BHL.


Plate XX. North, Alfred John. Descriptive Catalogue of the Nests and Eggs of Birds found in Australia and Tasmania. (1889). Digitised in BHL by Museums Victoria.

A Descriptive Catalogue of the Nests and Eggs of Birds found in Australia and Tasmania (1889) was published by Alfred John North, who described a number of birds for the first time. This publication contains a detailed description of the eggs of each species that were accessible to North, supplemented with descriptions of such other distinct varieties as occasionally occur. The history of the details of the eggs is often described as unknown, with a few exceptions taken from Gould’s Handbook to the Birds of Australia. The full book is available on BHL thanks to Museums Victoria.

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Plate XXIII. Lewin, John. A Natural History of the Birds of New South Wales. 3rd edition (1822). Digitised in the BHL by Museums Victoria.

John Lewin relocated to Australia from England in 1800, keen to visit the colony of New South Wales. His first book on birds, Birds of New Holland, was published in London in 1808. Unfortunately, as the books were shipped back to Australia from London for distribution, they were lost, possibly at sea. Only six copies are known to exist. Lewin decided to begin a second edition. However, his copper illustration plates were still in England, hence he needed to start again from scratch. The second edition was renamed The Birds of New South Wales with their Natural History and was published in 1813. It is recognised as the first illustrated book published in Australia. The third and fourth editions, published under the title A Natural History of the Birds of New South Wales, were published in 1822 and 1838 respectively and have been digitized in BHL by Museums Victoria.

bird heads

[Plate VI]. Gould, John. A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the Adjacent Islands. (1837-38). Art by Elizabeth Gould. Digitised in the BHL by Museums Victoria.

Acclaimed ornithologist Gould received bird specimens in London from his brothers-in-law in Australia, which he used to publish his Synopsis of the Birds of Australia (1837-38). The illustrations are predominantly of bird heads, all hand-painted by Gould’s wife, Elizabeth. Only basic descriptions of Australian birds were used, as Gould intended to publish this work in order to get to Australia to research and illustrate birds in the wild with his wife. Gould noted that on his return from Australia, these pages would be removed and further knowledge of Australian species and their habitats would be recorded.


Photograph of the cover of one of the volumes of Gould’s Birds of Australia, from the library collections of the Melbourne Museum of Museums Victoria. The Birds of Australia (1840-1848) has also been digitised in BHL by Smithsonian Libraries

In a letter dated 15th February 1839, while in Australia, Elizabeth Gould wrote “[John] has already done more in obtaining nests and eggs, making skeletons of the various forms of birds, etc., and in getting information of their habits, than has been hitherto done, and will, I hope, be enabled to produce an interesting work on our return.”

On arrival back to England, John Gould published The Birds of Australia between 1840 and 1848. The book encompasses 600 species of birds, of which 200 were first described by Gould. Elizabeth produced 84 of the illustration plates for The Birds of Australia, but sadly, she died in 1841, before the book was completed and only one year after the Goulds’ return from Australia. The remainder of the plates were primarily created by painter Henry Constantine Richter, which were made after sketches by Elizabeth. While in Australia, Elizabeth also created many botanical illustrations and wrote that these helped to “render the work on ‘Birds of Australia’ more interesting…I trust we shall be enabled to make our contemplated work of sufficient interest to ensure it a good sale.”

A good sale it was. The Birds of Australia was bound in seven volumes, costing subscribers £115 — the equivalent to around 18K AUD or 12K USD in today’s money. But the significant contribution this book made to the science of ornithology far exceeds its monetary value.


Plate I. Cayley, W, Neville. What Bird is that? (1931). Digitised in BHL by Museums Victoria.

What Bird is that? A Guide to the Birds of Australia (1931) was the first comprehensive field guide that was intended as a bird identification book in Australia. During the early 20th century, there was a growing interest in amateur ornithology, and Cayley had hoped that his book would encourage nature lovers to extend their knowledge and appreciation of Australian birdlife. In addition to being an ornithologist, Cayley was also a prolific artist and produced the 36 plates contained in the book. Subsequent editions were published up until the 1990s and it became a classic ornithological work in Australia.

Cara Hull is currently finishing a Masters of Science in the fields of Marine Ecology and Coastal Geomorphology. She recently finished her thesis on small crustaceans that live on and in the sandy beaches of Victoria, Australia. Her research looked at the relationship between washed-up seaweed and other environmental factors such as temperature and sand grain size. Her interests particularly include animal species identification and the history of nomenclature.

Colin Tong is currently finishing a Masters of Environments with a focus in Environmental Science part-time. He is currently working in the fashion industry and is also a hobbyist artist who has a strong interest in traditional technical illustration.

Ainsley Walters is currently finishing a Graduate Certificate in Science in the field of Zoology. She has also been working as an artist in Melbourne for the past ten years and has a strong interest in scientific illustration.