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“Birds express all that is beautiful, joyous, and free in nature.” 

That’s the opening sentence of the first edition of Neville Cayley’s What Bird Is That?, published in 1931. More than merely a field guide, Cayley’s now-classic book gives voice to the passions of birdwatching. Those passions are the focus of research undertaken by 2021 NLA Fellow Russell McGregor. Drawing on a wide diversity of sources on birds and birding, including books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, paintings, diaries and personal papers, he is compiling a history of birdwatching in Australia, from the late nineteenth century through to the present day. His emphasis is on the emotional and aesthetic aspects of birding, though without ignoring its scholarly and scientific side. A guiding theme is that birding was, and is, a manifestation of modern, urban people’s craving for communion with nature. Following that thread, Russell’s research illuminates not only the changes in birdwatching practice but also the rise of an environmental ethos and the ways in which settler Australians have embraced nature to cultivate a sense of national belonging.

Russell McGregor is an Adjunct Professor of History at James Cook University and the author of several award-winning books. His latest, Idling in Green Places: A Life of Alec Chisholm, was shortlisted for the 2020 National Biography Award. As befits his project, Russell is a passionate birdwatcher.

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