It’s been a good year for birds, so far. During the lockdown, our human world has been impinging rather less on theirs. People have been realising that birds are all around them, even in towns, and, with less noise from cars and planes, they have been hearing, as if for the first time, birdsong loud and clear and (mostly) beautiful. But, as Richard Smyth points out in An Indifference of Birds, ‘the birds were always there’. They were there, in their earliest forms, when dinosaurs roamed the planet. In some cases, they have been in one place, even at one nesting site, for astonishing lengths of time. Greenland’s gyrfalcon settlements have been continuously inhabited for at least 2,700 years – about as long as there has been a city called Rome – while a penguin colony on Adelaide Island in Antarctica ‘was founded before Thebes, before Hebron, before Athens’.
An Indifference of Birds is a book full of such dizzying perspectives. Smyth’s previous book, A Sweet, Wild Note, was an engaging study of birdsong; this one, though short, is much wider-ranging. It is wonderfully original in its approach. Rather than looking at the place of birds in our world and history, Smyth turns things around to explore our place in their world and history. It’s history from a bird’s-eye view. From that perspective, we humans are a passing phenomenon. We are often a threat, but we also have our uses, inadvertently feeding them (especially since we took up farming) and providing them with novel habitats and at times being, to quote one of Smyth’s chapter headings, ‘accidental conservationists’. However, as the book’s title suggests, our presence in their world is generally a matter of indifference to birds: ‘We don’t know whether yellow-legged gulls patrolled the roofs of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus or if bee-eaters perched and snatched at hornets dodging among the marble columns of Ephesus – but we do know that the birds’ view of these places would have been free of the human filters of history and status, beauty and meaning.’ This is one of the most stimulating books on birds I’ve read in some while, a bracing reminder that it’s not all about us.
Jennifer Ackerman’s The Bird Way, though more conventionally scientific and anthropocentric, is also a wide-ranging look at the world of birds. Where her earlier work The Genius of Birds concentrated on bird intelligence, The Bird Way widens the focus, taking in bird behaviour: their ways of communicating, working, playing, loving and parenting. There is, says Ackerman, a mammal way of doing things and a bird way – and the bird way becomes more astonishing in its variety and inventiveness the more we find out about it. Birds simply don’t follow rules: the diversity of their ways of living seems endless; they confound our expectations at every turn. Consider the New Guinea parrot Eclectus roratus: the female, contrary to the conventions of sexual dimorphism, is more brightly coloured than the male – a brilliant crimson to his grassy green – and the two sexes are so different that for years they were believed to be distinct species. Their chicks moult immediately into their adult plumage instead of staying safely drab like other birds, and the mother bird has a habit of killing her male chicks as soon as they hatch. What purpose could that possibly serve?
Happily, for every tale of infanticide, chick-napping, necrophilia (seen in Adélie penguins, among others) and murderous parasitism (cuckoos, honeyguides), there are examples of well-developed altruism, from keas (highly intelligent parrots) working collaboratively on complex tasks to the development by the greater ani (a member of the cuckoo family) of a system of ‘collective childcare’ that would delight a women’s cooperative. Packed with mind-boggling examples of bird behaviour, many of them drawn from very recent research, The Bird Way is a breezily written and very readable survey of a fascinating subject.
Much narrower in focus is Owls of the Eastern Ice. Jonathan Slaght’s book is a blend of travel writing and ornithology, telling of his journeys in Primorye, a remote forest region of far eastern Russia, in search of Blakiston’s fish owl. The world’s largest owl, it is also one of the world’s rarest birds, notoriously elusive and very odd-looking: ‘almost too big and too comical to be a real bird, as if someone had hastily glued fistfuls of feathers to a yearling bear, then propped the dazed beast in the tree’. Slaght’s quest for the owl is the first stage in a conservation project that he hopes will protect not only the owl and its habitat but also the local population and their way of life. His travels take him into dangerous terrain and bring him into contact with a colourful range of locals, all more or less drunk (95 per cent ethanol is their drink of choice) and mad. There are exciting moments, but after a while the tale becomes rather repetitive and begins to feel over long. There are only so many ways of describing an encounter with an owl, especially if it’s only the one species. Happily, though, there seem to be any number of ways of writing bird books – and they keep on coming.