Cover image for Blackhearts : ecology in outback Australia
Blackhearts : ecology in outback Australia
Symanski, Richard.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
viii, 216 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QL673 .S98 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



This fascinating book is a firsthand account of the adventures of an ornithological field team studying long-tailed finches in outback Australia. In 1991, Nancy Burley, a noted behavioral ecologist, and her husband, Richard Symanski, went to Australia with their one-year-old son and four American students hired as field assistants and babysitter. The social relationships and problems that developed among these individuals in confined and exotic settings and the scientific discoveries that did--and did not--take place form the heart of the book.

Symanski begins by telling how he and his wife set up this elaborate field expedition--including the hiring of what seemed to be qualified, compatible, and knowledgeable field assistants. He then describes the harsh realities of their circumstances in Australia: primitive living conditions on an outback cattle station; field sites and subjects for study that were not as expected; and students who were not prepared for the rigors of field life and who became unenthusiastic about the work for which they had been hired. And he tells how he and his wife strove to overcome all the different challenges with which they were confronted. The book provides insight into the demands of professor-student-based fieldwork, particularly when generational conflicts, differing expectations, and culture shock complicate the "business" of doing science.

Author Notes

Richard Symanski is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

This is an eye-opening book for those who think trekking through the woods to study songbirds is an idyllic experience. Anyone who has been in the field will recognize some (or even all) of the hardships. Symanski (ecology and evolutionary biology, Univ. of California, Irvine) and his wife, behavioral ecologist Nancy Burley (ecology and evolutionary biology, Univ. of California, Irvine), went to Australia to study blackheart finches for her research, taking with them their one-year old son, a student as babysitter, and three student field assistants. Unlike Margaret Lowman (Life in the Treetops (LJ 5/15/99) and Marty Crump (In Search of the Golden Frog (LJ 5/15/00), who discuss their careers in the field, Symanski covers only one field season, with some discussion of his wife's previous results. Like Crump, Symanski makes some interesting observations about the people and countryside around the field site, especially the place of Aborigines in Western Australia. However, he focuses on fieldwork, particularly recounting the social interactions among the field team members, and he has hard words for students unprepared for the difficulties of field life. Recommended for public libraries with travel or natural history collections; highly recommended for academic libraries.DMargaret Henderson, Cold Spring Harbor Academics, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Symanski (ecology and evolutionary biology, Univ. of California, Irvine) and his wife, noted behavioral ecologist Nancy Burley, spent several years in the Australian outback doing ornithological field studies. In this book he chronicles the myriad challenges they faced in a long-term study with a group of four student field assistants, under difficult conditions. The research centers on Burley's behavioral investigations on the zebra finch, a well-studied desert bird. Her widely published studies are of particular interest to ethologists and evolutionary ecologists. This book's narratives of the realities of field science in primitive conditions are explicit. Much of the couple's research effort was apparently made difficult by student helpers who were unprepared for the rigors of the field work for which they were hired. Many sections of the book detail the social conflicts of the research team members and the complex, isolated, group dynamics. The book blends fascinating ornithological discoveries with the frequent difficulties of reality in the field. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through faculty. C. Leck; emeritus, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick