Birdwatching, and the accompanying concern for the conservation of bird populations, has never been as popular and widespread in Britain as it is now. In an age rich in excellent field guides, we have ample means of familiarising ourselves with the wealth of species that can be seen in this country.
The magnificent Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker, its principal author, and Richard Mabey, whose companion Flora Britannica was its predecessor but who was prevented by ill-health from playing the major role in the writing of this book, is not intended as a work of recognition. Although its photographs are of superb quality, the authors’ aim is not identification but rather to illustrate moments and quirks in bird behaviour; they complement a narrative that harnesses myth, history and folklore to offer a beguilingly discursive approach to its subject. The book takes us from the nightingale of myth and reality, whose first notes heard in an Essex wood are one of the wonders of spring, to that ruffianly longshoreman among waders, the turnstone, which, if sandhoppers and molluscs fail its diet, will happily ingest potato peel, dogfood, or discarded bars of soap from holiday caravans.
That dowdy little passerine the dunnock, which spends much of its time skulking no higher than the lower reaches of hedgerows (seeming, as Lord Grey put it ‘to apologize for its presence’), leads, we learn, the most expansive of sex lives. Not only does it mate ‘more frequently than has been recorded for any other small bird’, but male and female vie with each other in promiscuous infidelity.
The robin was often thought to base its fellowship with man in these islands on something inherently sympathetic in the British character – while on the Continent, fearful of Homo sapiens’s intentions towards it, it sought the shelter of deep thickets. Our authors gently dispel this self-flattering conceit. The British bird is simply a separate race, noted for its confiding nature. Its European counterpart honestly prefers a woodland habitat to the handle of your garden spade.
That master fisher the cormorant is an early acquaintance of childhood, thanks to Christopher Isherwood’s nonsense poem: ‘The common cormorant (or shag) / Lays eggs inside a paper bag’. Yet, drying its outspread wings on tree branches, rocks or fairway buoys, this bird makes, perhaps, one of the most sinister sights in nature. It was an act of genius in Milton, as Cocker reminds us, to have Satan, on a reconnaissance mission to spy on Adam and Eve, enter Paradise not as the serpent but in the guise of this darkly resourceful predator.
Birds and literature regularly cross paths in Birds Britannica. ‘Detested kite!’, the epithet with which an enraged King Lear castigates his profoundly disagreeable daughter Goneril, says much about the low esteem in which this gracious raptor was held in Shakespearian times. A scavenger, a stealer of crusts from the very paws of impoverished children, it was apparently fair game for the fate that overtook it once its function as an airborne refuse-disposal system had outlived its usefulness. Heavily persecuted, the bird of medieval and Tudor townscape found itself gradually becoming a denizen of wild places. Driven into the natural fastness of the Welsh Plateau, with its steep-sided valleys and melancholy humped uplands, the species numbered by the beginning of the last century just five breeding pairs.
In the last twenty or so years the kite’s fortunes have undergone a remarkable transformation, beginning with the release of birds of Spanish origin in the Chilterns. It is now a frequent sight, wheeling aloft, or descending to allow its marvellous burnished copper plumage to make a contrast with the fresh green of spring beech woods.
Other colonisations have needed no assistance from human agency. The population explosion over the last fifty years of the dainty collared dove, a gentle and welcome addition to the dominant bullying wood pigeon and the ubiquitous feral pigeon, is simply an unexplained marvel. In Germany familiarity has already bred contempt, and its habit of calling from the aerials on apartment houses has earned it the nickname Fernsehtaube (‘TV dove’).
The most exciting and recent arrival of all has been that most elegant of herons, the little egret. Its lacy plumes, sought as a fashion accessory, led to severe depredation in Europe in the nineteenth century. But the egret has bounced back. An expanding European population has sent parties of winter visitors to prospect habitats on Britain’s southern coasts over the past twenty years, and this has led in turn to pairing and breeding.
Cocker points out that in the very hour of their destruction, egrets were, paradoxically, sowing the seeds of a conservation imperative. Their slaughter, and that of other herons, to ornament ladies’ headgear led to the founding of the RSPB. In indignant response to such carnage for purely decorative purposes, in 1889 in Didsbury a pioneering group of women founded the Society for the Protection of Birds. Within fifteen years it gained a royal warrant. Thus was born what is now the largest non-government wildlife organisation in Europe, with more than a million members.
Not all tales of visiting species have had such happy endings. The ruddy duck, an introduced North American species, is now one of the most pleasant sights on British lakes with its electric-blue bill, rounded chestnut body and, seemingly, perpetually cheerful countenance. Thanks to its interbreeding with the kindred white-headed duck of Spain, and the resulting formation of hybrids, it is under sentence of death in this country. At the request of the Spanish authorities, the RSPB has undertaken to eliminate the British population through a programme of shooting. As Cocker demonstrates, quoting indignant letters, this is one of the most fiercely debated ‘conservation’ issues of modern times. Charges of ethnic cleansing are levelled at the purists by those who point to frequent interbreeding between cognate species – tufted duck, scaup, pochard – in the wild. And the thought of the collateral damage to other waterfowl, as marksmen blaze away at ruddies on nature reserves, is one to chill the blood.
A completely different tempo drives To See Every Bird on Earth, by Dan Koeppel. It beats to the pulse of the twitcher (in America the ‘lister’) – here the author’s father, who in the wake of his marriage breakdown is helped by his son to achieve the 7,000 species necessary for qualification as a ‘high lister’. Birdwatching as neurosis? Certainly this frenetic search through the continents of the world in the pursuit of sheer numbers appears to substitute species-crunching for a genuine love of wild things.
The Bedside Book of Birds by the Canadian Graeme Gibson is an eclectic miscellany, handsomely illustrated with images ranging from classic European and American bird paintings to Aztec ceramics and Assyrian bas-reliefs. It approaches its subject through literary and scientific extracts from all ages: quotations from the Venerable Bede and the fourteenth century Peterborough Bestiary rub shoulders with Gilbert White of Selborne and Darwin’s Origin of Species. A book for dipping into.