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Australia's 'twitterverse' explored

Modern storytellers share the early settlers' fascination with birds.

Now here's a treat for a twitcher: a pretty package of three books markedly different in size and scope, perspective and production date, yet each in its own way celebrating the birds of Australia.

As Janine Burke proclaims at the outset, ''We tend to take birds for granted, in the landscape or in our neighbourhoods. The presence of birds communicates the health of a place. When they're gone, it's as though there's a hole in the sky.''

Better known as a biographer and art historian, Burke admits she is ''a very amateur naturalist'' whose knowledge of birds has been drawn solely from observation.

Burke spends too many of her precious 146 pages of text apologising for overuse of the first person, justifying ''criminal'' use of anecdote and anthropomorphism, and rambling over her own shortcomings.

A ''nervous, unpredictable'' woman with an unreliable stomach, apparently she sleeps badly, burns easily and droops in the heat.

She fantasises about being plucked from the Kalahari Desert by David Attenborough.


Perhaps this is avi-erotica?

Novelist Alex Miller, a fellow Allen & Unwin author, describes her book as ''the most intelligent and entertaining book on birds I have ever read''. If so, he really should stay in more often.

Beyond Burke's self-indulgence, however, Nest is a surprisingly pacy, perceptive and engaging read. The anecdotes, observations, literary references and illustrations are insightful, if frequently whimsical.

There are noisy miners dive-bombing the author's cat on the stairs of her Melbourne unit. There are silver gulls on Cockatoo Island, building nests ''little more than a detritus of twigs strewn on shit-splattered terrain''.

And there are the universally unloved pigeons, described by Italian author Italo Calvino as ''degenerate progeny, filthy and infected''. Charles Dickens (raven), John Keats (nightingale) and Karen Blixen (stork) also have their say.

Just as she says of the 19th-century ''birdman'' John Gould, Burke reveals an ''endearing sense of wonder'' - not least as she cradles a nest from a museum collection that allows her to ''share the birds' intimate domestic space''.

As Linda Groom explains in A Steady Hand, it was with similar wonderment and fascination that John Hunter, the second governor of NSW, approached his self-appointed task of recording the birds, flowers and people he encountered.

Indeed, he was overawed. ''It would require the pencil of an able limner [illuminator of manuscripts] to give a stranger an idea of the parrot tribe … cloathed [sic] with the most beautiful plumage that can be conceived,'' he said.

Inevitably, given his ''lack of qualification'', Hunter's bird paintings - mostly done on the spot or even copied ''as a compliment'' from other artists - now appear simple, static, seemingly posed, often on what appears to be the same tree branch.

They lack that characteristic certain something - birders call it ''jizz'' - that defines a bird. But they do not lack charm nor, of course, personal and historical significance.

Groom, who is the curator of pictures at the National Library of Australia, which acquired the sketches in 1959, provides a lively commentary on Hunter the artist, the musician, the governor and the man.

He was ''devoid of stiff pride'', according to a contemporary. The Scottish-born Hunter made two visits to Australia, as captain of HMS Sirius of the First Fleet, which was subsequently wrecked on Norfolk Island, and in 1795 as governor.

It is highly possible that in 1800 Hunter would have made the acquaintance in small-town Sydney of John Lewin, the man who is today remembered as the first professional - as opposed to convict - artist to come to Australia.

As Richard Neville explains in Mr J. W. Lewin: Painter & Naturalist, the accomplished author, illustrator, printmaker and natural historian missed the boat to Sydney. Literally. Having left the Portsmouth dockside to return briefly to London to collect some equipment, Lewin returned to find his ship had taken advantage of kind winds and set sail, with his distraught wife, Maria, aboard.

When Lewin finally arrived, eight months after his wife, he found her the talk of the town, the centre of a fruity defamation action over allegations of ''unseemly public drunkness'', during which she had affairs with two officers on her ship.

She was eventually vindicated, and awarded £30 damages, plus costs. And, though pained by this embarrassing welcome to Australia, her husband plunged into his new life in a colony that was ''a crucible of discontent, factionalism, poverty, social opportunism and aggressive capitalism''.

Between his arrival and the publication 13 years later of Birds of New South Wales, the first illustrated book to appear in Australia, Lewin's style evolved dramatically. Neville, the Mitchell librarian at the State Library of NSW, says that ''He struggled at first''.

''It was as if looking at the region, which he didn't find easy at first, triggered some creative response to nature that caused him to suddenly abandon the conventions of his training,'' Mitchell says.

''Alone in NSW and without a supporting milieu of naturalists and artists, Lewin developed an aesthetic that was at once fresh and completely unlike the typical specimen style of a bird profiled on a generic stump or branch.''

Such commentary could almost have had in mind the stiff sketches of Governor Hunter who, Neville notes, showed his approval when he ''tipped three of [Lewin's] honey-eaters into his own album of natural history illustrations''.

Janine Burke
Allen & Unwin, 183pp, $32.99

Linda Groom
National Library of Australia, 229pp, $49.95

Richard Neville
New South, 272pp, $39.99