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McGill, Arnold Robert (1905–1988)

by C. E. V. Nixon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Arnold Robert McGill  (1905-1988), ornithologist and businessman, was born on 3 July 1905 at Box Ridge, New South Wales, second of three children of Thomas James McGill, farmer (formerly a shearer), and his wife Annie Evelyn, née Colless, both born in New South Wales.  His parents ran a store, which they transferred to nearby Armatree in 1913.  Arnold left school aged 13.  He roamed the district, armed with a catapult, but his observation of a diamond sparrow (firetail) (Emblema guttata) at close quarters in 1921 prompted an admiration for its beauty and a desire to watch birds.  The only resources he had for identification were 'a "treasured" full set of 100 cigarette cards' and J. A. Leach’s  An Australian Bird Book, purchased from his pocket money; he did not yet have a pair of binoculars.  His journal, 'My Personal Ornithological Observations', retyped in 1972-73, recorded his bird sightings from 1913.

In 1925 the McGills moved to Arncliffe, Sydney, where they conducted a family grocery, which Arnold subsequently took over.  He enjoyed cricket, tennis and bushwalking, as well as birdwatching.  On 7 November 1936 at Taree Methodist Church he married Bertha Olive Redman.  'Bertie' became a devoted companion in the field, beloved by the birding fraternity.  As a result of problems from a perforated duodenal ulcer in 1931, Arnold was ruled medically unfit for service in World War II.  He was president (1952-62) of the St George Grocers’ Association, a buying co-operative formed to meet the growing competition from `supermarkets’.  In 1962 he became secretary and bookkeeper of the newly formed Major Food Centre Pty Ltd; from 1964 until 1968 he was manager as well.  He retired in 1972.

In Sydney McGill’s rambles focused first on Wolli Creek and the lower Cooks River, where his interest in wading birds was kindled.  By the late 1930s he had established contact with many leading ornithologists.  His mentor and 'closest ornithological mate' was Keith Hindwood.  Association with scientifically trained ornithologists honed his interest in avian classification and, aided by a prodigious memory, he attained an expertise that was widely recognised abroad.  He joined the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union in 1941.  Honorary secretary (1944-60) and chairman (1960-62) of the State branch, he also served as national president (1958-59) and assistant editor (1948-69)—in truth the real force—of the RAOU’s journal, the Emu.  He became a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales in 1954, and of the RAOU in 1965, as well as being patron and honorary life member of several bird clubs.  In 1984 he was awarded the OAM.

From 1942 McGill contributed many articles and reviews to the Emu and other journals.  He had a gift and a passion for painstaking, meticulous recording—from 1940 to 1988 he made daily lists of his bird observations, including the actual numbers of birds of each species he saw.  His work formed a valuable record of the changing bird population, particularly of Sydney and surrounds.  Another contribution to ornithology was his compilation of A Species Index to the Emu (1953) covering the first fifty volumes (1901-51), supplemented by ten-year indices to 1960 and 1970, then indices of authors and species for each volume up until his death.

McGill’s publications included Field Guide to the Waders (1952) with H. T. Condon, which ran to six editions, The Birds of Sydney (County of Cumberland) New South Wales (1958) with Keith Hindwood, A Hand List of the Birds of New South Wales (1960), published by the Fauna Protection Panel, forerunner to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and Australian Warblers (1970).  With two others, he comprehensively revised Neville Cayley’s  classic, What Bird is That? (1958).  He contributed information on forty-two species to the Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds (1976) and was scientific editor and honorary consultant for The Wrens & Warblers of Australia (1982), published by the National Photographic Index of Australian Wildlife.

An affable and unpretentious man, McGill was generous with his time and his knowledge, a kindly mentor to the young.  He found it amusing that he, professionally unqualified, was consulted by professional ornithologists and university professors, but it rankled when arriviste 'overseas pseudo-academics' in the RAOU seemed to disparage the contribution of the native-born, who were much more familiar with Australian birds in the field.  He was active in the Arncliffe Methodist Church.  Predeceased (1981) by his wife and survived by their son, he died on 29 July 1988 at Liverpool and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Newsletter (NSW Field Ornithologists Club), October 1988, p 1
  • Corella, vol 12, no 4, 1988, p 131
  • Emu (Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union), vol 89, pt 3, 1989, p 182
  • Australian Zoologist, vol 25, no 3, 1989, p 87
  • McGill papers (Australian Museum archives, Sydney)
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. E. V. Nixon, 'McGill, Arnold Robert (1905–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgill-arnold-robert-14207/text25219, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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