Harold James Frith 1921-1982

Written by C.H. Tyndale-Biscoe, J.H. Calaby and S.J.J.F. Davies.


Harry Frith's life spanned a period in Australian society when perceptions about native animals and plants changed from one of regarding most of them as a nuisance to be removed to one of recognising that they are a priceless heritage to be protected and cherished. In his career as a biologist in Australia, Frith played an important role in bringing about that change in perception, through his investigations of the behaviour and ecology of many species of Australian birds and of kangaroos, through his leadership of research on wildlife in CSIRO, through the books he wrote for the general public, and through his influence on conservation policy in State and Federal Governments.

Harry Frith was born at Kyogle in north-eastern New South Wales on 16 April 1921, the second son of Richard Frith, a dairy farmer on the Richmond River, and Elizabeth Marshall, a city girl from Sydney who met Richard while visiting friends in the Richmond district. There were no other children of the marriage, and Harry's elder brother, Alexander, later became a general practitioner.

The Richmond River district was previously dense rainforest and its wholesale clearing for dairy farms had begun during the time of his grandfather and been largely completed by 1890. His father was a bushman who knew a great deal about birds and other animals and their relationship to the food and changes of the seasons, and was also an ardent hunter. Harry was presented with his first firearm at the age of eight and from then on went with his father in search of pigeons for the pot. He acknowledged that his father was a major influence in developing his early interest in natural history, at a time when he had no contact with professional ornithologists or conservationists. His father gave him a copy of the first edition of Cayley's What Bird is that? for his tenth birthday, and later Frith dedicated his major book, Waterfowl in Australia, 'to my father who taught me about birds'. In his last book, Pigeons and Doves of Australia, he recalled his first encounters with birds at the age of five:

I have always been impressed by pigeons. The first bird that I can remember definitely seeing was a Grey Thrush that jumped on to a verandah rail in about 1926. The second birds were the Peaceful Doves that bred, more or less continuously, in the rose trellis. The third birds of clear recollection were the Topknot Pigeons that used to sweep over the valley in massed flocks, pause on the ridge, or hurtle down into the rainforest across the creek. The rainforest, not only across the creek, has mostly gone and the farms that replaced it failed to survive a recession in the dairy industry. Many are now derelict and occupied by groups of city people seeking an alternative society. These people are less demanding on the land than the society that preceded them and some pigeons will benefit.

Frith was educated first at the Lismore High School, and later the two boys were sent away to board at Scots College in Sydney. Harry detested Scots College because it separated him from the country and because of the attitude it fostered; in later years he spoke warmly only of Lismore High. After matriculation, he entered Sydney University to study Agricultural Science. In his first year he won the Fitzroy Prize for Principles of Agriculture, and he was an able student throughout the course, which he completed at the end of 1941. In respect of his future career, he later remarked that he came into ecology and zoology through the backdoor, because the Agriculture course at that time included no practical training in zoology and the first year requirements were restricted to systematics and entomology. During his university career, the one person who had a great influence on him was a plant pathologist and geneticist, Dr W.L. Waterhouse FAA, who knew nothing of birds or zoology but was a scientist of very high standing; it was his meticulous science that turned Frith's mind towards the precision and beauties of research and of research as a career (letter Frith to L. Cheung, 4 Jan. 1965).

War service and early research career

The Second World War abbreviated Frith's studies and he had no time to reflect on a career. Although he completed a pass degree, he chose to enlist in September 1941 rather than stay on to complete the Honours course. He served in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force from then until 1945, rising to the rank of Lieutenant. He served in the 2/6 Field Regiment as a gunner, seeing service in Syria and Palestine, until Japan entered the War, when his unit was brought back to Australia in March 1942. He recounted that, on the voyage, the ship turned this way and that in the Indian Ocean, as Churchill and Curtin debated whether or not the troops on the ship should be sent to Burma or return to Australia. Churchill refused to provide naval escort for the ships to return; hence the erratic, evasive course they took. In September 1942, Frith's regiment went to New Guinea, taking part in the Buna and other campaigns.

His time in New Guinea was a great inspiration to Frith, showing him the natural wealth of unspoiled rainforest and inspiring him with ambitions to develop effective conservation reserves and policies in Australia. He saw in the riches of tropical rainforest the potential biological diversity of the fragmented bush of the northern rivers of New South Wales. As his career progressed, he strove to counter the habitat destruction that was sweeping through the outback. Primarily he was driven by the urgency of conserving Australian birds; this drive spilled over to other wildlife, but birds were his highest priority. First and foremost he saw the need for real information about the biology of Australian species.

Harry Frith married Dorothy Marion Frances, daughter of Francis Patrick James Killeen, Newspaper Manager, and Mary (née Chapple), of Killara, NSW, at St Philip's Church, Sydney, on 20 November 1943. They had three children, Diana Gay (Sweetman), Richard David and Marion Elizabeth (Constantine). After demobilization in October 1945, the family moved to Griffith in the Riverina, where Frith was appointed Assistant Works Manager and Technologist at the Griffith Cannery Pty Ltd. However, within a few months he had resumed his aim for a research career when in May 1946 he was appointed Assistant Research Officer to the Irrigation Research Station, Griffith, a part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR, later CSIRO). He retained his connection with the military by joining the Citizen Military Force, and from 1950 to 1957 was an acting Captain in the 7/21 Australian Horse Regiment.

In Griffith, Frith worked under Eric West on the cultivation of orange trees, first on a long term factorial experiment and later on the possibilities of protecting the trees from frost with frost fans. Part of the research was periodically to measure the citrus trees. Frith found that each tree contained the nests of zebra finches and other small passerine birds and he began to gather information about them. Soon he found that his field notebook had as much about what the zebra finches were doing in the orange trees as about the attributes of the trees that he was paid to study. At this time he had no idea that his interest in birds could be developed as a career, but a series of events was to change this in 1952.

Wildlife Survey Section

After the successful release of the myxoma virus in December 1950 and the subsequent epizootic of myxomatosis that spread through the rabbit populations of eastern Australia, there was an urgent need for biologists to monitor the epizootic as it evolved in different parts of the country. Francis Ratcliffe, who was Officer-in-Charge of the Wildlife Survey Section of CSIRO, responsible for the myxomatosis programme, sought from West the temporary use of Frith to monitor the spread of the disease in the Griffith region of NSW. In a letter to Ian Clunies Ross, Chairman of CSIRO, in June 1951, West says he has agreed to this and then continues:

The only trouble is that Frith has only got a 'Prefect' car. He finds the 'Prefect' altogether too light and unreliable for much travelling. To do the Myxomatosis work properly will entail much outback travelling. He is negotiating to sell his car and get another, and wants either a 'Holden' or 'Ford Consul'. I was wondering whether it would be possible for any action to be taken to assist Frith in getting a 'Holden'. Of course I realise that 'string pulling' is a popular occupation now-a-days; but I really do think that there is justification in this case; particularly considering the national importance of the work, and the real difficulty of organising field assistants. If you could help in this matter I am quite sure it would make the Myxomatosis work run much more smoothly in this district.

The records don't say whether the Chairman helped Frith to get his private car for public duty, but he began. This encounter kindled in Frith the desire to join the Wildlife Survey Section in order to work full time on birds, and in January 1952 he sought a transfer from the Irrigation Research Centre, which after some negotiations between the two groups was approved in July 1952.

Frith was very conscious at this time that he lacked any training in ecology and little in zoology and would need to redress this by wide reading. He sought advice from Ratcliffe:

Any ecology I know is of the practical type and has been learned the hard way. Can you recommend some reading I could profitably do to fill the time in. I have been swotting up zoology, as such, vigorously and hope to knock a hole in the handicap I start with by the end of the year. I am having a lot of fun at the moment with a bunch of Mallee hens I found near Rankin Springs. There are three mounds within a few miles and they are preparing to lay. The way they are opening and closing the mounds daily, apparently trying to generate a suitable temperature, is really fascinating. It has been good enough to drag me 30 miles out from 5 pm-8 am daily for ten days anyway.

After the decision was made for him to transfer, he was encouraged to develop his studies on birds and Ratcliffe envisaged him being involved with certain lines of economic ornithology. At the same time as the transfer, Ratcliffe arranged for Frith to make an overseas study tour, and he spent 1954 at Oxford with David Lack in the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology. Of this time Lack wrote later that:

he was extremely well-liked by everyone at the Institute, and we all thought very highly of his work, though he did carry a chip on his shoulder at this time, perhaps in reaction to the English reserve. He gave an outstandingly good lecture to the students here, which was extremely well received by them.

The fact that from time to time as he lectured he paused to roll a cigarette created scarcely less academic comment. He found the time at Oxford very stimulating and received help from R.E. Moreau, at the time the Editor of the ornithological journal The Ibis, who encouraged him to review the breeding habits of megapodes, which was subsequently published in The Ibis (1956). In later years he believed that it was Lack's influence in ecology, combined with his own natural history instincts, derived from his father, that directed him into the type of ecology he undertook.

To Norman Robinson, a colleague of that time, Frith's dry sense of humour and intense love of the bush made him seem to be a character straight out of Henry Lawson or Banjo Paterson. And to Wayne Braithwaite, a young protege of his, Harry in the early fifties was at his relaxed, enthusiastic best, out trudging in the swamps after ducks at Darlington Point, watching Mallee fowl at Pulletop, wading through swamps at Humpty Doo or searching for Lyrebird nests at Tidbinbilla in pouring rain in June.

The Mallee fowl

Harry Frith at a mallee-fowl mound with attendant male bird (about 1952)

His first major study, on the Mallee fowl, Leipoa ocellata, established his international reputation in ornithology. He searched the remnants of mallee around Griffith for the Mallee fowl, already considered a rare bird. He found what he wanted at Yenda. Here was a sizeable patch of mallee owned by a farmer who would let him mark, watch and experiment with this intriguing bird. He established the distribution of birds within the mallee woodland and the remarkable patterns of behaviour of the male and the female birds throughout the year and in relation to the timing of their breeding. While it was known that the birds laid their eggs in large mounds that they assembled from soil and fallen vegetation found in the mallee, Frith's study elucidated the means by which incubation took place in it. He confirmed that the mound was indeed an incubator, its temperature controlled by the male bird; the female plays no part in the construction of the mound or in the regulation of the temperature within it. In some ingenious experiments, he placed thermocouples and a heating coil, powered by a nearby generator, in the mound and observed the reactions of the male bird to the altered temperatures. By this means he was able to show that the male bird is able to detect the temperature with its bill to within one degree C. He also showed that the heat for incubation is provided at different times of the year by fermentation of mallee leaves or by the sun, the male bird adjusting the temperature by either opening the mound to allow the sun to heat it, or closing it to allow fermentation to heat it, so as to provide optimum incubation conditions for as long as possible through the year. The female lays one large egg every few days and the chick at hatching is fully fledged and independent as soon as it leaves the mound. Frith showed that each pair of Mallee fowl has several mounds, using the most appropriate one for the pattern of rainfall experienced each year.

His work on the Mallee fowl was published in a series of papers between 1955 and 1962 and was one of the first Australian ecological studies in which rigorous experiments were conducted in the field to test hypotheses. It was summarised in his classic book, The Mallee fowl, a bird that builds an incubator, which set the style for a new genre of books on Australian wildlife that combined scientific findings with a writing style that appealed to a wide public. This book, and his later ones, were to have an important influence in changing public perceptions about wildlife species and the effects of farming practices on their survival. A perceptive passage in this book relates to the relative importance of the fox and land clearance on the survival of Mallee fowl and illustrates the balanced and persuasive way that Frith could put an unpalatable point of view:

It is commonly believed that the chief cause of the gradual disappearance of Mallee fowl in uncleared areas is depredation by foxes, and that there is little that can be done to combat this. Foxes undoubtedly do eat a proportion of the eggs and do kill some adult birds; but there is no reason to believe that such losses are heavy enough to cause the present decline in Mallee fowl numbers. In fact the evidence suggests that foxes cause little or no decrease in the numbers of Mallee fowl. However, the sheep which graze the inland scrubs strike at the food supply of the birds, destroying them far more completely and effectively than any fox or any settler shooting an occasional bird for the pot. Sheep and rabbits in the mallee feed on the herbs and fallen acacia seeds, and thus enter into direct competition with the birds for food. When the herbs are eaten, and the seeds destroyed, the stock turn to the acacia seedlings and eat them; this means that ultimately the food-plants themselves will be decreased or eradicated and with them the birds.

The book was reviewed in Ibis by Moreau (1964) and in Emu by Jones (1963), both reviewers emphasising the extraordinary work required to understand the nature of the bird's reproductive strategy and both recognising the important message of the book that understanding the ecology of the bird is essential for its successful conservation.

Australian waterfowl

The study of Mallee fowl was not, however, Frith's official work, and after transfer to the Wildlife Survey Section his primary task until 1960 was the ecology and economics of the Anatidae (ducks and geese), which comprised the economics of wild ducks in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area and of wild geese and ducks in the Northern Territory, where they were considered to be pests of rice crops. These studies included life history studies on waterfowl and the regulation of their breeding and nomadism across Australia. His ability to grasp the general picture led him to recognise the importance of the riverine plains of New South Wales to Australian ducks. Using the resources of the Australian Bird Banding Scheme, which he was later to reorganise and run, he was able to trace the movements of waterfowl across the continent and show that individual birds could cover immense distances in a short time and so exploit the availability of water bodies as these appeared in different parts of the continent. His pioneering studies on the breeding, feeding and movement of Australian ducks, particularly the Grey Teal, Anas gibberifrons, and the Freckled duck, Stictonetta naevosa, were recognised as his most important contribution to ecology. As Frith wrote in Wildlife Conservation:

In regions with regular climates breeding is restricted to fixed seasons, but in inland Australia the breeding seasons are erratic. Swamps can fill at any time of the year or remain dry for years on end. If the waterfowl had fixed breeding seasons often this would coincide with times when all the swamps were dry. Similarly favourable conditions for breeding at other times would be missed. The result, however, is that although there is some breeding somewhere in the continent, in most years its occurrences or timing in any one place cannot be predicted from year to year.

These observations led him to question the view, based on northern hemisphere studies, that the breeding in waterfowl is controlled largely by photoperiod cues, and led him to a novel, alternative hypothesis. He was particularly struck by the observation that heavy local rain would not trigger breeding, but Grey Teal would lay eggs within a few days of the change in water-level. He postulated that rising water level per se was the trigger to initiate breeding. This was subsequently investigated by Frith's colleague Wayne Braithwaite (Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Ornithology, pp. 489-501 (Canberra, 1974)), who confirmed for Grey Teal that photoperiod is a minor stimulus to breeding, while factors associated with heavy rainfall are potent stimuli. He concluded that these may be proximate factors, that the ultimate factors associated with rising water levels and flooded waterways were that seeds become available to the birds, and that the bloom in phytoplankton and aquatic invertebrates that follow provide abundant, nutritious food on which to breed. As Ernst Mayr wrote of Frith's work:

He was one of the earliest practitioners of the axiom of modern ecology that ecological problems are discovered by careful, scientifically controlled observations, and that the resulting explanatory models must be tested by further observations, experiments, and other approaches.

For his work on the Mallee fowl and Australian waterfowl, Frith was awarded the D.Agr.Sc. by the University of Sydney in 1963. The work on the waterfowl led to the publication of the first comprehensive book on Australian ducks and geese, Waterfowl in Australia, in 1967. In reviewing it for Ibis, David Lack (1968) wrote that 'this is the fullest and most important account of the ecology of waterfowl in natural conditions for any region in the world'. As with his previous book, this one had a strong conservation message, based on close knowledge of the wildlife and the contending needs of agriculture and industry:

The important breeding grounds in the south are the billabongs, swamps, and floodwaters of the inland rivers. These depend on regular flooding for their replenishment and this also stimulates breeding. Anything that decreases the frequency of flooding must decrease the frequency of breeding and hence the numbers of ducks. Should flooding be prevented altogether, there can be little or no breeding and the great flights of ducks throughout the south-east will diminish further and ultimately cease. Water conservation is essential to the country's economy, and the flow of the inland rivers is being further controlled and flooding decreased. It is not possible to deny the legitimate demands of agriculture for water or of industry for hydro-electric power, but if waterfowl are to remain common it will be necessary to consider their needs seriously when planning water-control and conservation works, in order to ensure that the breeding grounds are not needlessly destroyed.

Magpie geese and the origin of Kakadu National Park

Field work at Humpty Doo:
at the nest of a magpie
goose (1956)

Immediately after the War, the cultivation of rice had begun in the Northern Territory at Humpty Doo station and later in the Ord River development. At Humpty Doo the site chosen for the rice was a breeding ground of magpie geese, Anseranas semipalmata, and a not surprising consequence of this was that the geese entered the rice fields and caused crop losses. This led in 1955 to a request for the Wildlife Survey Section to investigate magpie geese and the extent of their depredations in northern Australia. Ratcliffe asked Frith to undertake the task and it proved to be a critically important event in the development of Frith's career and of his contribution to Australian conservation. Although the study was requested by the Northern Territory, support was not always forthcoming, as a letter from Frith to Ratcliffe in February 1956 shows:

The Humpty Doo circus continues with mud, slush, mosquitoes and bastardry on all sides. We arrived to find no truck, no hydroplane, no cartridges and no co-operation. I put up with it for a week and today had it out, no holds barred, with Curteis. Getting no satisfaction there, I approached the Administrator in his ivory castle and told the truth that without some means of moving on either land or water I was frustrated and we would have to abandon the project and return to Griffith. There then seemed to be a lot of buck passing, the upshot of which was we now have a land rover and the hydroplane is being fixed up tomorrow. I think we have won but time will tell. The wet season is hell as the Humpty Doo quarters are in the middle of a pandanus swamp, and so every day or so a few inches of water goes through the hut and the frogs leer in the doorway all night, and the flies, mosquitoes and general filth has to be seen to be believed.

Nevertheless, the encounter with magpie geese swept Frith off his feet. Stephen Davies worked with him on this task and he recalls Frith saying apologetically one day to a row of geese that they were dissecting, 'It's only because we love you...'. The main publication that resulted from this study [Frith and Davies, 1961. Ecology of the magpie goose, Anseranas semipalmata Latham (Anatidae), CSIRO Wildl Res. 6:91-141] demonstrated that the life cycle of the geese centres around moderately deep water in the low-black-soil swamps, which provides the bulk of their food for the whole year and their breeding habitats. These are relatively restricted areas and any alteration would lead to the destruction of the goose colonies, as had happened over other parts of Australia. Their conclusion was that the geese would not be a continuing problem to the rice industry; rather the advance of settlement would eliminate the magpie goose from the Northern Territory.

This conclusion aroused in Frith a passion to preserve at least some of the great biological wealth of the northern coastal plain and Arnhemland. He found sympathetic allies in Goff Letts, Lionel Rose and Tom Hare of the NT Animal Industry Branch, who like Frith knew the birds and plants of northern Australia and were keen to establish conservation reserves. The NT Animal Industry Branch appointed Frith to its Fauna Advisory Committee because of his work on magpie geese, and that knowledge informed the recommendations of the Committee. Their first achievement was the promulgation in 1962 of the Woolwonga Aboriginal Reserve as a nature reserve. This included Goose Camp or Bamaroo-gjaja, at the confluence of Nourlangie Creek and the South Alligator River, where Frith and Davies had done their work, and some of Frith's pleasure in the outcome is conveyed in a letter written to Stephen Davies, then at Cambridge, on 11 April 1962:

As a matter of interest, I spent last week in Darwin and it was quite nostalgic travelling around. I flew to Port Keats and inspected the Daly River as a possible sanctuary for wildlife in general and geese in particular. The climate is extremely good for getting a substantial national park there and we are tossing up between the whole of the South Alligator River valley as against the country to the south of the Daly. The Alligator is ecologically more self-contained, but the Daly has no future complications of rising buffalo industries and that sort of thing. Goose Camp you know we already have. The NT are preparing new fauna legislation, which will cover national parks and all, and three or four large national parks are to be written into the ordinance itself. This will mean they are inviolable. There will be Cobourg Peninsula, an area of desert, Goose Camp and one of the other rivers mentioned above. We have also secured the [Wildlife Survey] Section two seats on the Fauna Conservation Advisory Board to the Administration. All that now remains is to get the Legislative Assembly to pass the draft legislation through.

In 1965, the NT Reserves Board recommended the formation of a National Park in the Alligator River area of the far north of the Northern Territory. This was to cover 6,410 square kilometres and include Woolwonga Aboriginal Reserve. However, it was not until 1970 that the Federal Government agreed to establish a Planning Team of three people to develop a management plan for a national park in the area. Frith was the third person on the team, and subsequently John Calaby and four members of the NT Administration were also included as specialist members assisting. The Planning Team published its Proposal for a Northern National Park, NT in 1971. However, in 1972 the NT Administration proclaimed under the Wildlife Conservation and Control Ordinance, the Alligator Rivers Wildlife Sanctuary of about 3,290 sq.km. Later recommendations of the Ranger Uranium Environmental Enquiry for a great expansion of the Park led to the declaration in April 1979 of the Kakadu National Park, which incorporated the former sanctuary. While many people were involved in the establishment of Kakadu, Harry Frith was among the first who conceived of a great park in the Top End, and he was involved for almost 20 years in achieving its realisation. He was never happier than when showing off the magnificence of Kakadu and its varied fauna to those who had not previously experienced it.

Subsequently, in 1975, in his capacity as Chief of the Division of Wildlife Research, Frith negotiated with the NT Government for an adjacent portion of land, Kapalga, between the South and West Alligator Rivers, to be assigned to the CSIRO as a research site for 20 years. In 1984, Kapalga was incorporated into Kakadu National Park, as part of Stage II, and control transferred to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, but it remained as a research station until 1994.

Pigeons and doves

As mentioned earlier, Frith developed an interest in pigeons at an early age and he sustained that interest to the end of his life. His first scientific publication was on pigeons and his last book, Pigeons and Doves of Australia, published after his death, was its culmination. These studies included detailed observations on the behaviour of all the Australian species. From 1962, much of this was conducted from his desk while he administered the affairs of the Division of Wildlife Research after his appointment as Chief. He did this by the construction of a tropical aviary adjacent to his office and sharing one plate glass wall with it. A movie camera was permanently positioned in the office and, when a particularly interesting display by one of the birds occurred, other matters in the office were suspended while the behaviour was recorded on film.


In 1960, Francis Ratcliffe gave Frith the task of leading a major research effort on the desert kangaroos, particularly the Red Kangaroo, Macropus rufus, which was considered to be a competitor of sheep in the grazing lands of western NSW and in need of control. This was a new departure for Frith, and he began by visiting the then main centres of research on kangaroos at the Zoology Department, University of Western Australia, under Professor Harry Waring and at the Zoology Department of the University of Adelaide under the leadership of Geoff Sharman. A study site was chosen in western NSW and, over a period of four years, regular samples of kangaroos were collected for dissection and assessment of breeding status. As well, animals were caught at watering points, marked and their subsequent movements observed, and the first attempts were made to estimate the numbers of kangaroos by aerial counts. One of the kangaroos caught at that time was recovered 25 years later about 450 km from the site of capture (P. Bailey and L. Best, 'A red kangaroo, Macropus rufus, recovered 25 years after marking in north-western NSW' Australian Mammalogy 15(1992), 141). The method of aerial counting of kangaroos was subsequently refined by Graeme Caughley and became the basis for the management of kangaroos across Australia. However, Frith's heart was not in this work and, on becoming Chief of the Division, he moved quickly to appoint Sharman to the staff in order to develop a strong research programme in marsupial biology in the Division. Although Sharman moved to the Chair of Zoology at University of New South Wales in 1964, the programme begun by this initiative was to persist until 1994.

Sharman brought most of his team from Adelaide, and to these were added people transferred from other programmes – John Calaby, Mervyn Griffiths and Bill Poole – and a very productive period began. Captive breeding populations of red kangaroos and both species of grey kangaroo were established, as well as smaller colonies of several species of wallaby. With these, the various patterns of reproduction in the kangaroo family were worked out and the first film recording the birth of a kangaroo was produced. The latter was widely distributed in Australia and overseas and was influential in the later movement for the conservation of kangaroos. This led to controversy about the annual culling of kangaroos for damage mitigation in the sheep grazing lands and the commercial use of the meat and hides. The work of the Division of Wildlife Research was important here, and in 1969 Frith and Calaby published their book Kangaroos, which reviewed the history of the family Macropodidae, summarised the recent research from the Division and elsewhere and, in the last three chapters, tackled the controversial topics of the economics and conservation of kangaroos. Once again Frith displayed his skill in presenting the arguments for rational conservation, and the book was influential in the policies that were subsequently adopted by the States and the Commonwealth, particularly the National Advisory Committee on Kangaroos.

Chief of the Division of Wildlife Research

By 1960, the Wildlife Survey Section under Francis Ratcliffe was developing into an organisation with wider responsibilities than pest management. Research on the wild rabbit continued to be an important component, and work on kangaroos began because of perceptions of them as pests. However, Ratcliffe also encouraged the study of indigenous species for their own sake and in order to develop conservation strategies for some of them. The Section also became involved in wildlife research in Australia's Antarctic Territories, particularly the sub-Antarctic islands. In June 1960, the work of the Section was reviewed by a committee of three professors, Sir Samuel Wadham, W.P. Rogers and L.C. Birch, which recommended an expansion of staff to include mammal ecology and a biological survey unit. Ratcliffe had recognised that this was necessary but did not consider that he should lead it and, very shortly after the Committee had met, he announced his decision to step down as Officer-in-Charge. Speculation as to who would be appointed to succeed Ratcliffe was intense, as it was recognised that the appointment would determine the direction of the changes that were inevitable in wildlife research. Two of the strongest personalities in the Section were Robert Carrick and Harry Frith, and both were internal contenders. Carrick had been recruited from Scotland and brought to the Section the new ideas in ecology from the northern hemisphere; he had already done excellent work on fulmars and starlings in Britain and after joining the Section in Canberra, had begun a behavioural study on the local magpies. He was very different from Frith and, although both were ornithologists, their views on how the Section should develop differed considerably.

Carrick and Frith's chief rival for the position was Professor Donald Farner of Washington State University, Pullman. Farner had worked with another senior member of the Section, Dom Serventy, in Western Australia on control of breeding in zebra finches, and was at the time the acknowledged world leader in the endocrine control of breeding and migration in birds. He would have given very different leadership, with greater emphasis on physiological processes and possibly less on ecology and conservation. However, his conditions – divisional status, increased research funding and American style terms of appointment of scientific staff - were not acceptable to CSIRO. Carrick was also in the academic mould and his views on the conduct of the Section were similar to Ratcliffe's – great individual freedom for the scientists and an emphasis on basic research in behaviour and physiology and less emphasis on field ecology. By contrast, Frith had definite ideas for establishing teams of people, each working on a common problem under a senior leader, and a strong emphasis on field studies on species of national importance. The selection committee favoured Frith's approach over Carrick's, and when Frith was asked what his conditions would be it is said that he laconically replied, as if contemplating a fixable used car for sale, 'I'll take her as she stands'. Frith was appointed Officer-in-Charge in May 1961, and within a year of his appointment the Section became the Division of Wildlife Research and Frith its first Chief. Farner remained at Pullman and Carrick moved to the Antarctic Division in Adelaide, where he continued his studies on penguins, albatrosses and elephant seals that he had initiated while he was on the staff of the Wildlife Survey Section.

Almost immediately he was appointed, Frith went off to the little cabin in the Tidbinbilla Reserve, which Norman Robinson used as a base for studies of the Lyre Bird. He spent a week alone there thinking about the long-term needs for research on wildlife in Australia and how the Section could best be positioned to answer them. During that week he produced a paper setting out his aims for the Section and its re-organisation. The three main aims were to be: (1) the collection of basic data on animals of economic importance to enable State fauna and vermin authorities to develop control and conservation strategies; (2) surveys of the Australian fauna by collections and ecological studies of the species in particular regions; (3) the establishment of ecological, physiological and parasitological principles, where possible using species of economic importance. To achieve these aims, he proposed to re-organise the staff by concentrating everyone at Canberra and Perth initially, and subsequently to establish a third group at Darwin. During the next ten years, this plan was largely accomplished; strong groups were developed in rabbit biology and marsupial biology in Canberra, cockatoo and emu ecology in Perth and wetland ecology in Darwin. In addition, extensive fauna surveys were conducted in northern Australia and Papua New Guinea to determine what wildlife survived and where. These surveys were the precursors of present day environmental impact assessments and provided the material for the creation of the Australian National Wildlife Collection. During these years, Frith gave good leadership to the Division. His gruff manner, occasionally even abrasive, concealed a warm, indeed sensitive, personality. Whether addressing his colleagues, scientific meetings, government ministers, dignitaries or a stranger in the bush, he always had the same down-to-earth style. Michael Ridpath recalled that once, when they were interviewing a candidate for a post in the Division who seemed promising but was somewhat reticent, Frith exclaimed 'so-and-so, you're a cow of a bloke to interview'. That, of course, loosened up the startled applicant, as it was intended to do, and he finally got the job. His blunt style was often used deliberately and to a purpose. It usually worked well, especially because people were not used to scientists talking in that way, so they listened. He was very aware of those modest workers whose excellent results were sometimes unacknowledged. Although he may never have told them of his approval, he did not forget them and, sooner or later, he saw to it that their worth was recognised in a tangible way. His style was very effective in his drive to develop strong measures for conservation of wildlife and the preservation of natural ecosystems.

Formative role in wildlife conservation

Frith had a heart-felt fascination with the semi-arid, tropical and sub-tropical regions in which he did most of his research. This sentiment expressed his intellectual interest in, and his enjoyment of them. He combined a sharp intellect with remarkably long-term views. That is well illustrated by his frequent warnings of the effects of various kinds of development on populations of various species of animals, whether of concern for their conservation or the prevention of damage they might do. His strategy for achieving his aims was threefold: develop a secure and sound base of information on the fauna and habitats under consideration, promote public understanding and appreciation of them, and work within the State and Federal bodies that have responsibility for the legislation and execution.

With regard to the first aim, most of the work of the Division and all of his own was concerned with understanding the ecology of native wildlife as a prelude to effective conservation of the species and their habitats. Publishing the primary papers was a necessary part of this and he was concerned that there was no appropriate journal for much of this work. Ratcliffe had instituted a house journal, CSIRO Wildlife Research, but Frith sought to establish a journal that was available for work other than that done in the Division and that had an independent editorial board. In 1976, he established Australian Wildlife Research as a vehicle for the publication of original research on the native and introduced fauna of Australia, and it soon achieved a good reputation in Australia. Subsequently, it became one of the series of Australian Journals of Scientific Research with an international focus and the shortened title, Wildlife Research.

The second aim was achieved through the publication of a series of books that were addressed to the informed public. Three have already been mentioned. In 1969, he edited the book Birds of the Australian High Country, which had been initiated some years before by Robert Carrick and in which the work of the Division was a very large component, with most of the sections written by members of the Division and the birds illustrated by Betty Temple-Watts. This was more than a field guide to the birds, as it included substantial amounts of information on their biology and a section on habitats and conservation. It was a very popular book, reprinted with some additional material in 1976 and republished as a revised edition in 1984. In similar vein, he edited, for the Reader's Digest Services in 1976, the Complete Book of Australian Birds. This was an especially important book, as it set a style that has become a model for others, such as Strahan's (1986) Complete Book of Australian Mammals. With Alex Costin, in 1971 he edited Conservation, the first book in Australia devoted to this new topic; many of the things written there remain topical today. Two years later, he published a national summary of Australia's conservation needs, Wildlife Conservation, a brave venture when little was known about many animal groups and their needs. Again that book pioneered a field to which many have since contributed. In 1979, the revised edition of this book was awarded the inaugural Whitley Medal of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW for the best book on Australian animals published in that year. In 1982, he was again awarded the Whitley Medal for Pigeons and Doves of Australia.

As Chief of the CSIRO Division of Wildlife Research, he was able to foster wildlife conservation in many ways. He encouraged in the Australian States, which have legal responsibility for the fauna, the recognition of the urgent need to build up their own conservation agencies, alongside the vertebrate pest control agencies sought by farmers. He was a member from 1961 of the New South Wales Fauna Protection Panel and its successor the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council, from 1963 of the Northern Territory Wildlife Advisory Council, and from 1960 of the ACT Nature Conservation Advisory Committee. In these bodies, Frith pursued the need to base conservation decisions on observed facts. At a time when waterfowl and kangaroo management policies were forming, he promoted the need for aerial estimates of abundance on which harvesting quotas could be based. His early attempts to count kangaroos from the air led to the development by Graeme Caughley of the sophisticated counting techniques which management now takes for granted. He was highly regarded by the senior people in the State authorities, who recognised his large contributions to conservation. In 1980, he was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his services to the understanding and conservation of Australian wildlife. He was nominated for this honour by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and he was very affected by this action and the recognition it gave to his work.

Final years, 1975-82

Frith's national and international stature reached a high point in the mid 1970s when he was successively elected to Fellowship of the Ornithological Unions of Australia, Britain, Germany, France and the United States. In 1974, he became a permanent member of the Executive Committee of the International Ornithological Union, and he was the Organising Secretary for the 16th International Ornithological Congress, held in Canberra. This involved considerable logistical skills as the pre-Congress tours became mired in the outback by widespread and torrential rain, the airlines were locked in an unresolvable pilots' strike and there was an international oil crisis. Nevertheless, the foreign visitors were full of praise for the excellence of the organisation that Frith converted, by ingenuity and hard work, from a threatening disaster into a magnificent success.

In 1975, he was simultaneously elected to Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences.

At the same time, two events occurred that had a profound effect on him and affected his subsequent relationship with his staff and his role in the Division. He suffered a serious motor accident in December 1973, which resulted in a fractured pelvis and affected his self confidence. He was recovering from this while organising the Ornithological Congress and it undoubtedly added to the stress of that task. However, the more critical event for him was Cyclone Tracey that struck Darwin in December 1974. He had by then established a strong group in Darwin and the research on wetlands was well under way, thus fulfilling his long felt ambition for a strong presence in the north. The cyclone caused little damage to the main laboratory building, but it destroyed almost all the houses of the staff and seriously affected many of the staff and their families. Frith was deeply concerned for the people he had put there and his energies became fully engaged with their rehabilitation. After the initial crisis was over and the process of recovery began, however, his judgement about people and the direction of the renewed programme was much less sure than before and contradictions in his management style became more apparent, with unfortunate consequences for the people concerned, for him and for the Division.

Another more general factor which affected him was the change in management structure of CSIRO that began in 1976 with the increasing financial constraints brought in by the Fraser Government. Frith was essentially a field zoologist and was never happy in Canberra. In the office he was always restless, driving himself and the senior people working with him to the limit. As the power of Chiefs was steadily curtailed by the new management structure, the task of leading a Division with diminishing resources put great stress on a Chief. In his case this was aggravated by the Darwin experience. His view was not that he was Chief of a CSIRO Division but that it was his Division. In a sense this was true but, by the late seventies, after he had recruited a number of senior researchers with independent outlooks, his persistence with this rather military view of the world put him under severe stress. He became intolerant of alternative points of view from his own, and this was an immensely disruptive period for all concerned in Canberra. In his last years as Chief, he became a recluse, shunning people and absorbing himself in his own research on pigeons and doves.

Early in 1980, he announced that he proposed to retire as Chief in April 1981, when he reached 60. His intention was to retire to the property he had purchased in northern NSW, close to where he had grown up as a boy and where he wanted to restore the country to its original rainforest and to pursue studies on another mound building bird, the brush turkey, Alectura lathami, in the border ranges. His decision led to a review of the Division in October 1980, and this proved to be for him a very difficult time, as he felt that his life's work and his stewardship of the Division were under scrutiny. Indeed, so stressful to him was it that he suffered a severe heart attack the day after the review and remained on leave until his retirement the next year. He enjoyed a short time in his new home at Goonellabah, near Lismore, but suffered a second heart attack on 28 June 1982, from which he did not recover.


Harry Frith was a person who was inordinately aware of, and hence driven by the need for, personal achievement. He was acutely conscious of how history might judge him – he mentioned it on more than one occasion. Sir Frederick White, when Chairman of CSIRO, saw much of Frith when they visited Cobourg Peninsula together, and he commented that Frith always felt that he was in competition with his predecessor, Francis Ratcliffe. He was also a person with a passionate love of the Australian land and its native biota, and he strove throughout his professional life to understand it and to conserve it. Probably his most lasting contributions to Australia were his building of the Division of Wildlife Research and his books on natural history, with their detailed biological information and conservation message. Harry Frith was a pioneer in Australian conservation and, in the years since his death, we have witnessed the flowering of many of the projects in which he turned the first sod. The research and management strategies he promoted have led to a conservation programme that gives greater security to the Australian wildlife than it had when Harry's work started.


We thank those of Harry Frith's colleagues who provided recollections of him: Wayne Braithwaite, Alan Newsome, Michael Ridpath, Norman Robinson, Sir Frederick White and Wesley Whitten. The CSIRO Archivist, Rodney Teakle, and his staff provided valuable help with archival material, and Marion Frith provided information about his family.

The papers on which this Memoir is based are deposited in the Archives of the Australian Academy of Science; other papers, not directly referred to, are held in the CSIRO Archives.

Honours and awards

  • 1941 Bachelor of Agricultural Science, University of Sydney
  • 1963 Doctor of Agricultural Science, University of Sydney
  • 1973 Membre d'Honneur, Société Ornithologique de France
  • 1973 Corresponding Fellow, American Ornithologists Union
  • 1974 Fellow, Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union
  • 1974 Corresponding Member, Deutsche Ornithologen Gesellschaft
  • 1974 Corresponding Member, British Ornithologists Union
  • 1974 Secretary General, XVI International Ornithological Congress, Canberra
  • 1974-78 Member, Permanent Executive Committee, International Ornithological Committee
  • 1975 Fellow, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences
  • 1975 Fellow, Australian Academy of Science
  • 1978-80 Council Member, Australian Academy of Science
  • 1980 Officer of the Order of Australia, for services to wildlife conservation
  • 1979 Whitley Medal for Wildlife Conservation
  • 1982 Whitley Medal for Pigeons and Doves of Australia

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.10, no.3, 1995. It was written by:

  • C.H. Tyndale-Biscoe, CSIRO Division of Wildlife & Ecology, ACT
  • J.H. Calaby, Yarralumla, ACT; and
  • S.J.J.F. Davies, Mt Helena, WA.

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