By Stephen Debus
Let’s get it out of the way right out of the gate: Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is a mouthful. But putting that to one side, there is plenty to be excited about in this publication. Much of the early buzz online about this book focused undue attention on the slightly ungainly title but if you get as far as the preface you’ll find the rationale adequately explained.
The broader region of Australasia (strictly speaking limited to Australia and Melanesia for this book) has been included because the 3 Australian eagles would make for a thin book. There is much new knowledge to be presented on their poorly-known Asian cousins: unpublished data on New Guinea Harpy Eagle; the first observations of an active nest of Sanford’s Sea-Eagle; first prey record for Gurney’s Eagle; first nest and prey records of Pygmy Eagle; etc. The Eagle-like designation is necessary because “birds of prey” or “raptors” would have been imprecise. This book does not treat owls, falcons, and most other Australian hawks. (The author has dealt with all of these species in previous dedicated titles or in chapters for HANZAB.) Red Goshawk, Black-breasted Buzzard, and Square-tailed Kite, however, are each included in the book despite certainly not being eagles. Those species are each objectively eagle-like in certain ways and they’re each listed (or have been recently uplisted) as Threatened and have considerable amounts of new information available on them since the publications of HANZAB and HBW. So much for the title then.
Dr Stephen Debus has been the steward of raptor research in Australia, both through his own research and his position as editor of Australian Field Ornithology, for decades. He has even taken on the misguided task of shepherding this unruly author through the tortuous process of peer-review on matters raptorial. Twice. His eminence in the field (and patience with novice authors) is unmatched.
Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is a fascinating summary of our understanding of these charismatic species and collects the up-to-date publications describing their lives in one reference. The book is sectioned into four parts. Part One covers the Sea-eagles (White-bellied and Sanford’s). Part Two covers New Guinea Harpy Eagle; the only member of this group represented in the region. The biggest section is Part Three dealing with the Booted eagles: Wedge-tailed, Gurney’s, Little and Pygmy. The three Australian eagle-like hawks (Black-breasted Buzzard, Square-tailed Kite, Red Goshawk) are covered in Part Four. Each of these sections has a revealing introduction featuring historical and cultural information about the group, as well as pointing toward the work of prominent researchers in uncovering each of the species’ life cycles.
The ten species accounts themselves are comprehensive. They’re exhaustive without being exhausting. Each entry presents a highly readable distillation of the entire body of work which has been completed on each species including diet, movements, social organisation, habitat preferences, distribution, vocalisations, and measurements. Where more detailed work on nesting behaviour is available this is also included in the species account. Field identification is dealt with at the very front of each account, presenting all of the most common misidentifications with suggestions on how they can be avoided.
Perhaps the most revealing, albeit not surprising, aspect of Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is the size disparity between the reference lists for different species. The list of references for Wedge-tailed Eagle runs to a shade more than 6 full pages. For its close relative to the north, Gurney’s Eagle, there are only 6 references cited in total. Not surprising considering the former is a common bird of prey across an entire continent which can even be observed from the back yards of many living outside major cities in Australia, whereas the latter lives in smaller numbers in more remote and difficult habitat. But the revelation comes from comparing the available literature cited in Debus’ previous title, Birds of Prey of Australia (2nd ed.), and this latest book. In the earlier work, only published in 2012, Debus cites a single (1!) paper on Gurney’s Eagle, so the 6 references cited in this book are surely indicative that we are drawing back the curtain on some of these more obscure species. We needn’t look to the remote shores of New Guinea to see such expansion of our knowledge either. Despite being widespread over much of inland Australia the Black-breasted Buzzard has seemed chronically data-deficient. Debus lists a mere 7 references on this species in the 2012 work, while this latest book refers to 27 papers. Still plenty of room for improvement perhaps but this is clearly progress of a kind.
This illuminates something of a deficit in Australian science. There is very little funded raptor research in Australia (you might even extrapolate that to many other groups of fauna but I’ll remain focused on birds of prey for now). We can point to a few grant-funded or tenured researchers here and there but these are notable exceptions in a landscape of largely amateur or self-funded observers. Ecotourism, particularly just a handful of individuals running birding tours in remote areas of inland Australia, have contributed a disproportionately large amount to our knowledge of many species. They've also proven invaluable to professional researchers by providing virtually the only source of location (nests in particular) information for some hard-to-find species. I’m certain I’ve got no idea what the solution for the perpetual shortfall in science funding might be, but I’m encouraged by the fact that BirdLife’s Australian Raptor Association is apparently still working to improve ways of engaging birdwatchers and the wider public in raptor research.
We should be reassured that the contributions of a researcher of Stephen Debus’ stature continue to inspire in-kind contributions from ornithologists of every stripe. In communication with Dr Debus he informs me of a number of papers already in preparation and another book project looming on the distant horizon. He also intimates that a joint photographic book on the field identification of Australian raptors is in the pipes. So whatever laurels the author may be in possession of, he clearly doesn’t intend resting on them any time soon.
Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is more than a handbook of large birds of prey of Australia and neighbouring areas. It is a simultaneously highly readable, thoroughly enjoyable and authoritative monograph of some of the most captivating animals in Australasian skies. It’s the first such comprehensive book on these birds since HANZAB in 1993 and features arresting colour photographs portraying some rarely seen behaviours. I commend it to every reader who is interested in furthering their understanding of our large birds of prey.