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The Birds of Australia (1840-1848) | Psittacology free reading tips

Did you know that, in most countries, a book’s copyright lapses 50-70 years after the author has passed away? This means that many books written in the 19th century are now in the public domain.

In Psittacology’s free reading tips section, I share my best parrot book finds. They’re FREE to download, read or do whatever you want with. Today: John Gould’s “The Birds of Australia” Volume 5, which is dedicated to everything there was to know at the time about Australia’s parrots and parakeets. Including beautiful, free-to-use illustrations!

It must be admitted that this species is at once the most beautiful and elegant of the genus yet discovered, and it will consequently ever be most highly prized for the cage and the aviary; two examples, now in the possession of the Earl of Derby, appear to bear confinement equally as well as any of their congeners; in their disposition they are not so sprightly and animated, but at the same time they are much less noisy, a circumstance which tends to enhance rather than decrease our partiality for them.

Birds of Australia, v5 (1848, John Gould) – about the Leadbeater’s cockatoo

John Gould’s “The Birds of Australia” (1840-1848)

The Birds of Australia is a seven-volume work published between 1840 and 1848 (though supplements appeared in 1851 and 1869). The book is widely considered the most important work of John Gould, a prominent English ornithologist who lived between 1804 and 1881.

The Birds of Australia made quite a splash when it was released. Imagine: most folks had never heard of many of these exotic bird species from faraway Australia, and that at a time when Darwin was active and there was huge fascination concerning the topic. Gould had traveled to Australia himself in order to study the birds discussed.

This book is a collector’s item among vintage book enthusiasts. Originally, only 250 were printed! Although more were produced in reprints, the complete set still goes for $3,500+ online.

Luckily, you don’t have to shell out that kind of money if you’d like to read what Gould had to say about the various parrot species and other birds native to Australia. Because his work is now in the public domain, sites like Biodiversity Heritage Library and Gutenberg have been able to post all volumes online!

It’s incredibly interesting to read about these birds from the point of view of a society that was barely getting to know them. Be sure to share your favorite passage or print in the comments below!

Cover for The Birds of Australia (1840-1848) Volume 5 by John Gould.
The cover for Volume 5.

The Birds of Australia: Illustrations

The quality of the illustrations in the book is amazing! Most were drawn up by Gould’s wife Elizabeth, although many had to be finished by Henry Constantine Richter after she passed away in 1841.

Because this book is now in the public domain, that means you are free to use the illustrations inside it however you want. You can print them to hang on your wall, use them as postcards or just set them as a phone background.

You can find many of the prints from The Birds of Australia over at Wikimedia Commons, another organization dedicated to providing access to content in the public domain. They include loads of the parrot illustrations as well as others.

Here are some of my favorites:

Budgie illustration from The Birds of Australia (1840-1848) by John Gould.
“Among the numerous members of the family of Parrots inhabiting Australia, this lovely little bird is pre-eminent both for beauty of plumage and elegance of form, which, together with its extreme cheerfulness of disposition and sprightliness of manner, render it an especial favourite with all who have had an opportunity of seeing it alive.”
– Gould about what he called the “warbling grass parakeet”, now the most popular pet parrot species in the world and referred to as a budgie.
Cockatiel illustration from The Birds of Australia (1840-1848) by John Gould.
“The interior portion of the vast continent of Australia may be said to possess a Fauna almost peculiar to itself, but of which our present knowledge is extremely limited. New forms therefore of great interest may be expected when the difficulties which the explorer has to encounter in his journey towards the centre shall be overcome. The beautiful and elegant bird forming the subject of the present Plate is one of its denizens.”
– Gould about what he called the cockatoo parrakeet, now the second most popular pet parrot species and known as a cockatiel. Note the incorrect depiction of a female with yellow head!
Red-collared lorikeet illustration from The Birds of Australia (1840-1848) by John Gould.
“This lovely Trichoglossus inhabits the northern coasts of Australia, and is as beautiful a representative of its near ally, the T. Swainsonii of the south coast, as can well he imagined. In their habits and economy also the two birds so closely approximate that a description of one will serve for both. Independently of the richer blue of the head, the red nuchal collar and dull blackish olive mark on the abdomen are marks by which it may readily be distinguished.”
– Gould about what is still known today as the red-collared lorikeet.

Further reading

If you liked reading The Birds of Australia, be sure to also check out Psittacology’s other free reading tips:

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