top of page


On the 14th June, 2021 Dr Cliff Frith and Dr Dawn Frith each received an Order of Australia Medal for services to conservation and environment. As eminent ornithological researchers and long term members of BirdLife Australia, their names will be very familiar to northern Queensland birders. Many of us have enjoyed the various presentations made by the Friths to our Branch. Although each brought separate and distinctive skills to their joint efforts, they have been a team since they first met on Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, where they worked at the Royal Society Research Station (and fell in love). Their love of field research led them eventually via Thailand to Paluma in northern Queensland where they established ground-breaking field studies that became the focus of their lives and that produced dozens of exceptional publications of their work.

Cliff and Dawn on New Zealand Subantarctic Islands

Cliff and Dawn Frith have contributed extensively in tropical wildlife science, especially in ornithology. What is even more outstanding is that they have contributed so much excellent science largely through significant self-funding programs that enabled them to continue extensive fieldwork on their particular species of focus. Our knowledge of the world's bowerbirds and birds of paradise would be much more limited were it not for the work of the Friths. Cliff and Dawn supported themselves so that they could continue their scientific field work in the rainforests of northern Queensland and New Guinea. In the process, they started their own publishing company (Frith and Frith) and through it they produced many exceptional and colourful books about Australia's wildlife, that help Australians better appreciate the unique features of their wildlife including birds, reptiles, mammals, tropical rainforest species, marine species and tropical butterflies.

This was in the 1980s when little material was available in colour and at a reasonable price for ordinary households. Many tens of thousands of these volumes entered the community and brought knowledge and delight to the wider population. The publishing work continued with a number of excellent books produced in partnership with others (for example, Hinchinbrook Island) or as a Frith and Frith volume, including a magnificent hardcover book on Cape York Peninsula. While part of the focus of publishing was to develop an income to support their scientific work, these volumes also pioneered the development of accessible and accurate material about Australia's tropical wildlife. The significance of the ornithological scholarly work is demonstrated by the D.L. Serventy Medal awarded jointly to Cliff and Dawn by the Royal Australian Ornithological Union in 1996.

Another substantial part of their work was documenting in great detail many elements of the biology of Australia's bowerbirds. The Friths rapidly developed a reputation for their scientific work on our bowerbirds and by publishing much material in peer-reviewed scientific journals they contributed significantly to the knowledge to both understand and better conserve the species. Subsequently this expertise was drawn together in the landmark and scholarly publication of The Bowerbirds: Ptilonorhynchidae, published by Oxford University Press in 2004. Both Cliff and Dawn worked on this together including extensive field work in New Guinea and it is the definitive body of work on bowerbirds. Later (in 2008) Cliff and Dawn published an outstanding volume aimed at a wider readership called Bowerbirds: Nature, Art and History. This drew together in an accessible format the world's knowledge and values around bowerbirds. It was awarded the Whitley Book Award for natural history writing in 2008. In 2010 the Friths jointly wrote a companion volume on the Birds of Paradise: Nature Art and History and it also won a Whitley Book Award for natural history writing. Cliff had already co-authored the definitive scholarly book on the Birds of Paradise with Bruce Beehler in 1998.

The extensive publications aimed at a broader readership was founded on an extremely high level of scholarship, all the more exceptional because this was done while supporting themselves financially through publishing. Cliff and Dawn Frith have together published more than150 peer-reviewed scientific papers. This level of professional publication would be seen as excellent even from a person employed full time in a research institution. To achieve this while also self-funding research costs and a living allowance is remarkable.

Dawn, Mario, and Cliff in PNG 1987

With a Macgregor's Bowerbird bower in 1988

Throughout their careers, the Friths have given support to activities to achieve conservation of both the environment and particular species. It was fitting therefore that both Cliff and Dawn were recognised by a Cassowary Award (for an outstanding contribution to aesthetic appreciation of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area) from the Wet Tropics Management Authority in 2006. Cliff has contributed in a voluntary capacity to many areas of scholarship and conservation as well as his own prolific writing career. He has served as an Editor and Reviewer for many ornithological journals, including for Emu and Australian Field Ornithology. It is also of note that Cliff has shared his passions for music and folksongs not only by playing many voluntary gigs for community groups but also by providing support to others with a love of music.

In writing about their contributions to environment and conservation, it is difficult to separate Cliff and Dawn. Both are exemplary researchers and scholars and have worked so much together that the wider society knows them as the Friths! Cliff and Dawn Frith are indeed an institution in the sphere of ornithology and in their own northern Queensland community. They have accomplished much of great value to Australia through

their own extraordinary initiatives.

This recognition by the Australian Honours system is very well deserved.


If you loved this article, why not subscribe to our newsletter Contact Call?


bottom of page