Australian Backyard Naturalist

whitley (153K) Aust Backyard naturalist 2021 cover green (169K) Written by Peter Macinnis, originally published by the National Library of Australia in 2012.

Now in 2021, available in a revised and updated second edition.

How do you get it?
There are two choices:
This book shared one of the W.A. Premier's Book Awards. On September 16 2013, it was named as the joint winner.wa (18K)


Acknowledgements | Who is it for? | The Blog (extras) | Chapter contents | Reviews | Clippings | NLA media page
Handy museum links | About this page | Buy the book | See it on Google Books | This book on Facebook

A note from the author

Here you will meet springtails, pseudoscorpions, onychophorans, leeches, ticks, engaging spiders, mummified lizards. giant worms, some curious plants and even a few rocks. You will learn new ways of catching animals, keeping strange pets that will frighten adults, different ways of looking at them and more. You don't need a microscope for this, but if you have one, you will have a great deal more fun from this book. I certainly had fun writing it.

This book won awards when it came out, and this page largely reflects that time, but please note that the publisher let the book go out opf print, so the author has now published a second, independent 'Director's Cut' version, out in late October 2021.

cover mugshot-rev (97K) This is me, and yes, I'm looking pleased, because that thing on the right is a beautiful book.

I'm allowed to say that, because while I wrote the words, Jo Karmel, Elizabeth Faul and Paul Joice did the editing and design work, and that is what makes a book beautiful.

Yes, I found them lots of nice pictures to use from the National Library of Australia's collections,and yes, I took many of the photos, but that was just the start.

Anyhow, I want to thank those three—and Susan Hall at the National Library of Australia for proposing the book and then believing in it through all my stumbles.

I'm getting on a bit. I have a few more books I intend to do before I hang up my pen or drop off my perch, but this is the book I would be happiest to be remembered by. In this book, I have tried to capture and pass on the magic that various people and books brought into my life when I was young.


In particular, I want to single out Harry Woodward, Harry Himsley, 'Tom the Naturalist' (Alan Colefax) and 'Ajax' (Ada Jackson). I know little about Ajax, but her work in Beetles Ahoy ! was my constant childhood friend. And I should mention Keith McKeown, whose Australian Spiders opened up many other adventures.

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What I am trying to do

Those people gave me the wee beasties bug when I was young. Later, that shunted me off into a science degree and a life time of sharing the same interest with young people everywhere, as a teacher, but even more as an educator in the broadest sense. Here, I hope to reach a wider audience, and keep on reaching them for years to come.

I hope among other things, to give adults the tools with which to infect another generation. Every activity in the book was done from scratch and photographed, so readers can see the steps and read a logical account that leaves nothing out, because I made notes to myself as I went through the steps.

In the 1950s, I used to go home from school, having seen a demonstration in the classroom. I would try to repeat it at home, using a chemistry set which gave me a great deal more freedom than my parents ever realised.

As a teacher, I adopted a deliberate policy of sharing what I called "take-home science", activities that you could take home and try for yourself. I specialised in making my own equipment from available scrap, and showing may audiences how I made stuff. This book is the culmination of a life-time's experience as the arch-underminer of the Machines That Go Ping industry. Simple science is good science.

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Instructions for use

brianna-and-us (103K) This book is strongly recommended for reading to grandchildren!

(Obligatory disclosure in relation to this photo: please note that Robert the Rose Horse was employed as a stand-in for Australian Backyard Naturalist, which had slept in that morning. In consequence, this picture may contain traces of roses, sneezes and horse hair.)

I hope this book won't ever be a classroom text book, but I would like its ideas and ideals to seep into classrooms everywhere, because the science you find here is stuff that young people can see and do in the class, and then take home and do again and again—and improve on. They can share the methods—and the wonder—with parents, grandparents and neighbours. Lifelong education goes both ways!

Some of the freedom I found as an experimenting child could have been dangerous (especially the things I did with the chemicals!), and I make it the Golden Rule to help my readers dodge those dangers, but there is still plenty of adventure to be had. We ended up with far more material than we could use, so difficult stuff, complicated stuff, things that needed special equipment were all deleted.

Freebie extras!

I didn't waste the out-takes, though.

The dropped items are now appearing, bit by bit, in my writing blog, Old Writer on the Block. Remember: it may not be all that hard or risky: we just had too much material. Poke around there, and notice the tags that I attach to the entries to help readers to zero in on particular types of entry.

There were also quite a few pictures that missed out, and you can see them here.

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Here are some of the photos that made it:

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1-leech-catch (37K)1-antlion-wrangle-kit (40K)1-tame-dragon (70K)

In order, from left to right on two rows I see them on my screen (and they should still be in order on smaller screens):

  • A safe cage for keeping bush cockroaches or for hatching lizard eggs;
  • A generic small-animal trap;
  • What you need to make a high humidity jar;
  • A high humidity jar in which my pet slug lived for 10 months;
  • Luring a hungry leech into a jar (they aren't very bright);
  • Ant lion wrangling kit: bucket of dry sand, tub with water to stop ants escaping; and
  • How to handle a dragon safely (as a rule, I discourage this, but this way does not hurt the lizard).

Chapters in brief:

The chapters have changed repeatedly, as we refined our ideas about what should go here. The latest list appears below, and the first four chapters are fairly completely described, and so is the last chapter, but the chapters in between, well, you'll just have to read the book :-)

  1. Mammals (bats, possums, and how to use teeth to identify skulls, platypuses {OK, not common in backyards, but interesting}, nesting boxes, making a mammal-friendly backyard);
  2. Birds (spotting, identifying by appearance, habit, nest and song, attracting birds, problems with feeding, curious bird facts, how to observe birds and their behaviour);
  3. Amphibians and reptiles (information on attracting, observing, handling and what can be handled, curious facts, a bit about snakes and their venom, the art of catching small skinks, making a frog pond)
  4. Spiders (observing, keeping, spider relatives and more);
  5. Butterflies and moths (what to look for);
  6. Flies and mosquitoes (includes keeping and breeding flies and mosquitoes);
  7. Ants and ant lions (how to wrangle ant lions and other stuff);
  8. Other stingers, biters and nasties (wasps, bees, millipedes, centipedes and more);
  9. Leaf litter animals (all the stuff we never see);
  10. Snails slugs and their relatives (including the art of keeping them);
  11. Earthworms and leeches (including a leech barometer);
  12. Other insects (crickets, grasshoppers, stick insects, mantises and more);
  13. New chapter: Plants Finding out about plants, looking at prickles, roots and leaves, plant cells and stomates.
  14. Making your own equipment (there is specific stuff scattered through the book, like how to make and use a butterfly net (in the butterflies chapter), but this chapter has all the general stuff, like a high humidity jar, a Berlese funnel for catching really tiny life forms, a pooter and a fly trap that can also catch yabbies and fish). For this edition, I added hand lenses and assorted microiscopes..

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The reviews started rolling in, a few days before the official release date. The very first was from an Australian web site called Need to Read, now defunct.
Here is a brief quote: use the link to see the whole comment.

... a fantastic collection of facts, photos, illustrations and projects, as well as notes from the author's own experiences ... Photos of deceased animals and close ups of fly eyes and maggots, as well as the array of fun facts will keep children turning the pages. The projects are user friendly and include checklists and easy to follow instructions using mostly every day materials.

The second review is from Barbara Braxton, teacher-librarian and in the interests of full disclosure, an old friend from several educational email lists. It is now also available online.

From the furry to the slimy, the large to the tiny, Peter Macinnis explores the lives of the animals that share our lives and spaces in this fabulous book designed to introduce the reader to the fascinating world living in their backyard. From possums to parrots to pill-bugs, we learn about the habits and habitats of creatures that many of us never even notice yet are critical to ensuring that our environment is healthy and harmonious. Much as I think that some creatures have way too many legs and shudder as I think of them creeping over my skin, I now have a new respect for them and although I'm yet to be convinced of the value of a fly, I do understand that without them there would be no maggots and therefore the medical world would be deprived of an important source of therapy.

For this is the sort of information that is characteristic of Peter's books he doesn't just give dry facts that can be clicked, copied and pasted into some equally dry assignment he tells a story that absorbs you so you just keep reading and learning, engaged and intrigued, and emerging with not just information, but insight.

Each section comprises smaller sections that make its information accessible in the short chunks that support the learning needs of its audience. In My Backyard gives Peter's experiences with each sort of creature and it's this personal touch that is one of the elements which sets this book apart. At a Glance gives a broader background of the creatures and this is supported by Amazing! full of those quirky facts that some may wonder at the author's ability to winkle out, but those who are familiar with his writing and know the depth of his research are not so surprised. A Closer Look examines more complex issues such as chemical signals in ants and then the storyteller side of the scientist returns with fascinating histories about man's interaction with the creature. Did you know that Amalie Dietrich spent ten years living rough in the Queensland bush in the mid-19th century collecting, preparing and preserving specimens for use in European scientific studies, including the first-ever taipan snake? Her work led her become known as "Australia's first spider lady". Finally, each section has at least one project idea that students can engage in so they can see for themselves just what it is they have been learning about. (Miss 5 is going to love those and Grandma is just going to have to grow some backbone.)

The whole book is lavishly illustrated with photos from the National Library's collections and diagrams and photos that no Google search will ever deliver. The whole thing has this rich, glossy, satisfying feeling that a quality print resource offers and is accompanied by teachers notes available at

Barbara Braxton
Teacher Librarian
M.Ed.(TL), M.App.Sci.(TL), M.I.S. (Children's Services)

And another, from Bug Reviews:

Reviewed by Cassandra Griffin.

Australian Backyard Naturalist is a thorough reference book intended for a juvenile readership. It covers a range of subjects including mammals, ants, spiders, snails and many more all of which can be found in average Australian backyards.

With easy to read information, scientific names, and amazing photos, this book is excellent for school assignments or just for a child interested in the various subjects contained in this book.

Not only informative, author Peter Macinnis has also included his own personal experiences in each chapter. Not only theory but also practical; projects the reader can try such as ‘keeping mosquitos ‘or ‘making a butterfly net’ ’ABN’ covers most urban animals and explores Animal ecology in an age appropriate depth. Macinnis has created a reader friendly reference book which will excite readers and urge them to take part in their own backyard becoming Australian naturalists.

And another, from The Book Chook:

Reviewed by Susan Stephenson (there is a snippet of this page below, and a quote here: to see the whole thing, use the link).

Australian Backyard Naturalist is a must for libraries everywhere, but what an excellent gift it would make for children who are fascinated by the creatures they encounter outside! Parents will appreciate that kids will enjoy the book for years - it will appeal to pre-schoolers because of the great sketches and photos; beginner readers will cope with text boxes, labels and lots of help on the more scholarly sections; and independent readers will relish it all. It's also a perfect book to share as a family - reading it aloud together would make a truly wonderful family project, both entertaining and educational.

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(One of them got my name wrong three times, but a good review is a good review.)

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Links to Australian natural history collections online

The links below are the main ones I recommend to young Australian naturalists.
These are all places I have visited and enjoyed, online—and I have been to most of them in person.

Australian Museum, College Street, Sydney

Vertebrate Collections
Invertebrate Collections
Earth Science Collections

Australian National Herbarium, Canberra

Botanical Resource Centre
Australia's Virtual Herbarium
Information about Australian plants
Databases of Australian plants
Australian botanic gardens

Museum Victoria, Nicholson Street, Carlton, Melbourne

Discovery Centre (can be slow to load)

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 40 Macquarie Street, Hobart

Home page (very little available)

Western Australian Museum, James and Beaufort Streets, Perth

Pseudoscorpions of the world

South Australian Museum, North Terrace, Adelaide

Go to this link and click on the ''Research and Collections'' tab

Queensland Museum, Grey and Melbourne streets, South Bank

Queensland Museum Biodiversity and Geosciences

Links to overseas natural history museums

These (with the exception of Oxford), are museums that I have visited and enjoyed. Back to the top

This file is

It was created on October 15, 2009 (as I started work) and last updated October 15, 2021, as I put the finishing touches on a new edition. All the links worked on October 13, 2021—I deleted the duds.

If you email me at macinnis at, you will reach a spam trap, but be read, eventually, probably maybe. If you put my first name in front of that address (so it reads petermacinnis), you will reach me much faster and more surely. This low-tech solution is to make email harvesting difficult. I am generally willing to talk to interesting humans. Spammers miss out twice on fitting that specification.

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The home page of this set is here.

Since I started this site, it has drawn visitors.

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