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Science

Jonathan Elphick recommends the best books on

Birds

Birds are everywhere. They capture our imagination and make us wish that we, too, could soar away. Jonathan Elphick eloquently recommends the best books on the wonders of birds.

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    1

    The Hill of Summer
    by J A Baker

  • winter diary

    2

    Shorelands Winter Diary
    by C F Tunnicliffe (edited by Robert Gillmor)

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    3

    Birds Britannica
    by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey

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    4

    Birdscapes
    by Jeremy Mynott

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    5

    The Wisdom of Birds
    by Tim Birkhead

Jonathan Elphick

Jonathan Elphick is a natural history author, editor and consultant. He is a Scientific Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Fellow of the Linnean Society, the world's oldest active biological society. His books include an award-winning field guide for the BBC, The Birdwatcher’s Handbook: A Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland; Birds: The Art of Ornithology; another bestselling field guide (with John Woodword), The RSPB Pocket Birds; A Unique Photographic Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, and (with photographer David Tiplin) Great Birds of Britain & Europe. Among the many books he has edited is The Natural History Museum Atlas of Bird Migration. Jonathan is currently working as Researcher with author Mark Cocker and David Tipling on a world-ranging follow-up to Birds Britannica, Birds & People; writing a bird book for the Natural History Museum, and embarking on a more personal landscape and nature memoir.

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Jonathan Elphick

Jonathan Elphick is a natural history author, editor and consultant. He is a Scientific Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Fellow of the Linnean Society, the world's oldest active biological society. His books include an award-winning field guide for the BBC, The Birdwatcher’s Handbook: A Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland; Birds: The Art of Ornithology; another bestselling field guide (with John Woodword), The RSPB Pocket Birds; A Unique Photographic Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, and (with photographer David Tiplin) Great Birds of Britain & Europe. Among the many books he has edited is The Natural History Museum Atlas of Bird Migration. Jonathan is currently working as Researcher with author Mark Cocker and David Tipling on a world-ranging follow-up to Birds Britannica, Birds & People; writing a bird book for the Natural History Museum, and embarking on a more personal landscape and nature memoir.

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Book no. 1 on your list is The Hill of Summer by J A Baker.

This is by a remarkable author who was very much an enigma. I first read the book not long after it appeared in the 1960s. His first book was on the peregrine falcon and I was so impressed with that that I bought his second and only other book. [Editor’s note: the edition displayed contains both books] Now these books have been justly feted by nature writers, but in those days they were relatively unknown. The Peregrine is about just one bird through winter but The Hill of Summer contains many, from spring to autumn, and it’s Baker’s view of birdlife in the part of Essex where he lived.

He was unusual in that he didn’t drive, despite working for the AA, so he cycled and walked around, immersed in the landscape. He went out in all weathers and at all times – before dawn, late in the day and even at night – and he wrote in this incredibly lyrical way about wildlife and landscape. His descriptions of birds are searingly beautiful and also accurate, they just fly off the page. They appeal to someone like me who actually knows the birds.

The nightjar is just one of many that stands out. It’s a wonderfully mysterious bird: crepuscular, a bird of twilight, and lives on heath and open woodlands. It has intricately camouflaged plumage, with a pattern like dead leaves and bark and bracken, and it twists and floats through the air on long wings and tail. It makes this extraordinary song, which has been compared to a distant motorbike or an old-fashioned sewing machine, and rises and falls as it fills the air. Baker describes this moment when he stood on the edge of a woodland clearing and was entranced by these birds displaying and singing.

Book 2: Shorelands Winter Diary.

Charles Tunnicliffe was very important for me personally. He was a farmer’s son from Cheshire who had a huge talent for art and went to the Royal College. He was one of our greatest wood engravers and he first of all got commissioned by pet food people, like Bob Martin’s dog foods, and did lots of farm animal drawings. His draftsmanship of anything to do with the country and domestic and farm animals as well as wildlife is unimpeachable. He broke out when he began doing engravings for Henry Williamson’s series of nature books, starting with Tarka the Otter. His list of work is extraordinary. It ranges from work like the pet food or agricultural ads or Brooke Bond tea cards to fine oil paintings at Royal Academy exhibitions. He illustrated many, many books.

I loved his work from childhood. I grew up in North Wales and he and his wife moved to Anglesey to a house called Shorelands, and I used to see him there and watch him paint from a respectful distance. He occasionally came on walks with us. This is a wonderful book of his paintings and sketches and also his observations of birds. He’s a concise and interesting writer – his notes amplify the artwork brilliantly. There is a parallel text – Shorelands Summer Diary – but the Winter Diary appeals because I love winter birds such as the waders and wildfowl that used to come to the estuary and lagoon just opposite where he lived.

Most of his books are out of print but the ones that made the biggest impression on me as a child were a quartet of Ladybird books for children called What To Look For In Spring/Summer/Autumn/Winter and they have the most sublime tableaux of imagined life through the whole year. There will be a shepherd in a sheep pen feeding his sheep on swedes in winter, who is looking up into a grey stormy sky to see a great skein of wild whooper swans flying over, or a pair of magpies chattering to one another on the branch of a larch against a backdrop of distant Welsh mountains, just like the ones I could see from my bedroom window. As a child it was just magic – almost as good as being there. He’s very high up in my pantheon of ornithological art.

Birds Britannica.

I have a vested interest in this book because I did more than five years of research on it, which was some of the most interesting work I’ve ever done. The book was inspired by an earlier book, Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey. It’s about birds and every aspect of human reaction to birds. It’s not at all a book about how to identify birds, and although it does tell you something of bird biology, it’s primarily about our interactions with birds, from shooting and eating them, to celebrating them in various ways, including art and poetry.

Crucially, it has a core of contributions from members of the public and one of my jobs was reading and selecting from the sackfuls of mail and e-mails from all over the British Isles. These were interwoven into wonderfully erudite, witty and beautifully crafted accounts by one of our greatest nature writers, Mark Cocker, and illustrated with photographs taken or selected by a fine bird photographer, Chris Gomersall. The public contributions reflected a huge range of responses, from saying: ‘This is what this bird means to me’ or ‘This is what we used to call these birds’. As you can imagine, there was a vast array of responses to birds like cuckoos or magpies and various other birds that loom large in myth and folklore. There was one man who said that when you see a magpie you must hold on to your left collar with your right hand until you see a four-legged animal. If you are wearing a T-shirt you should hold the neck where the collar would be. There is so much superstition about birds. Birds being so visible, there is more superstition about birds than about other animals.

Which birds, apart from pheasants, do we still shoot and eat?

Well, the books talks about hunting and eating birds from medieval times, when they had swans stuffed with geese, pies stuffed with blackbirds and so on. The pie with four and 20 blackbirds has a basis in fact. Sparrows were an agricultural problem and they were netted in millions. We had some wonderful contributions on this subject – such as the memory from one contributor of an old Hertfordshire man who killed sparrows by blasting a whole row of them in one go, using a shotgun loaded with cartridges filled with sand, after the flock had flown up on to a washing line. I got many strange submissions about trapping and poaching birds. I had forgotten, for example, that moorhens are still legal game until I saw them hanging in the window of my Greek butcher down the road in London, although they are there no longer, since even the Cypriots who used to buy them aren’t keen to spend time plucking them as the feathers are difficult to remove.

I’m in Italy. They eat a lot of birds here.

I’m just about to review a wonderful book on the birds of Malta. More than half the book describes how the birds are killed in Malta – nowhere is worse in terms of devastating birdlife. Italy too. I was just in Tuscany and I was impressed by the fact that they seemed to have moved on a bit – there were lots of signs saying ‘No hunting’. Quail are hunted on passage between here and North Africa but they have long been protected in the UK, where few breed. In the areas in Southern Europe where they are more numerous they are widely hunted.

Now Jeremy Mynott’s book, Birdscapes.

Jeremy is a classicist but has always been interested in birds and he distilled his thinking about birds to produce this wonderful book. He explores the myriad reasons why people are so engaged with birds. It’s like walking with a very erudite but very passionate and interesting man, strolling through lots of different landscapes. He starts the book in Russia, then Suffolk, the Scilly Isles and so on. The ground he covers is immense. You feel you are having a conversation with an incredibly interesting travelling companion. His references range from Aristotle and Keats to Puccini to the Monty Python parrot sketch. Typically for Jeremy he couldn’t stop himself putting in a footnote about a Danish fossil parrot! It’s a fabulous book. I’d recommend it not only to anyone interested in birds but also for anyone who has a husband, wife, son or daughter who’s nuts about birds and can’t understand why. This will tell them.

What did Aristotle have to say about birds?

Aristotle said a lot about birds. Many of the Ancient Greeks wrote about birds and, of course, you know about their prognostications of the future using birds as omens. In fact, the Greek word for ‘bird’, ornis, was also their word for ‘an omen’. It’s interesting how much birds still enter our lives in common vocabulary and expressions: for instance, larking about, eagle-eyed, cocksure, swanning around, being gullible and so on.

Why is that?

I often write about why birds capture our imagination so much. I think the primary thing about birds is that we envy their ability to soar off a cliff or migrate from one end of the world to the other – their ability to fly. But more than that, they have so much going for them. They are ubiquitous in a way that mammals aren’t. It’s extraordinary how so many television programmes focus on mammals. We do love mammals – we are mammals ourselves, of course – but they are very hard to see. Most of them are nocturnal. It’s easy to see rabbits and deer, but they’re not brightly coloured. Mammals often just skulk and are harder to observe but birds have an immense interaction with our eyes.

You can watch birds anywhere. If you just look up there are plenty of birds, even in inner London where I live. It’s a bit grey here but right now I can see a wood pigeon perched on a TV aerial, and a flock of starlings flying past. I see sparrowhawks here, I see terns in summer, I see herons, woodpeckers, cormorants, gulls.

I see seagulls everywhere in London.

People who don’t watch birds call gulls seagulls but birders always call them gulls. They are still associated with coasts but many have taken to living far inland over the past 100 or so years – black-headed gulls following the plough are a common sight in farmland, while in our big cities, including London, they are commonly fighting for scraps of bread in parks and gardens or visiting rubbish dumps, along with the bigger herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls.

The Wisdom of Birds.

This could have been called The Wonder of Birds. The author, Tim Birkhead, is a brilliant academic, a professor at Sheffield University where he teaches animal behavioural and the history of science, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is exceptionally gifted at conveying often complex scientific ideas very elegantly, succinctly and excitingly. In a very busy life, writing this book took him over five years. So it’s been a long genesis, but he wanted to write about how scientists through history have found things out about birds, and that involved a lot of research in books and other historical sources. I have felt great curiosity about how the world works from childhood and I think all children are natural scientists. Really, a lot of science is a form of highly focused play, a way of looking at the world which, rather than diminishing it, makes it seem more wonderful.

Tim had the great notion of looking at various different aspects of bird biology – instinct, intelligence, song, breeding, migration and so on – through the lens of the historical development of the subject. He made it into such an interesting read. It’s called The Wisdom of Birds as a nod to the great 17th century naturalist John Ray, who wrote a book called The Wisdom of God. If you asked ornithologists who the greatest studiers of birds are, they would suggest many people but not necessarily John Ray. He was remarkable. His way of studying birds was really spot on. He really did go and look, rather than just repeat the old myths.

Tim has taken this history for a major theme of his own, cleverly relating it to how modern biologists study birds. He has spent a huge amount of time looking at old books in libraries in many parts of the world. He found that a lot of people who kept caged birds through the ages developed an impressive knowledge of their biology. A major research interest of Tim’s is the biology of sperm. If you need to know anything about sperm, then Tim’s your man. He found out that bird keepers actually knew a lot of things and then the knowledge was lost. Now he’s dug up a lot of examples of these bird keepers and others who really knew about their birds.

What kind of things did they know?

Well, that birds are unfaithful.

Really?

It used to be thought that almost all birds were monogamous, but you only have to watch drake mallards chasing around in gangs and it’s upsetting to see. They gang rape the female and the females may even drown and so on. It’s a nasty world, mallard sex. And then think of a cock pheasant strutting around the field with a harem… Yes, many birds are clearly promiscuous.

Tim, with his interest in sperm and especially promiscuity in birds, has unearthed a lot of the biology of how birds cheat, if you like. It’s all Darwinian selection and they try to maximise their chances. Sometimes, though, the advantage is to remain loyal. There’s a core of birds that is remarkably faithful. Swans and geese, for instance, and parrots too. If you watch macaws, as I’ve been fortunate to do in tropical America, you see they are almost never apart. Mostly within touching distance, including in flight. It’s wonderful. But equally wonderful are all the dramas and strategies that promiscuous birds indulge in to maximise their potential. Take that common little soberly plumaged garden bird the dunnock, for instance, they have such a racy sex life – each sex often with multiple partners. And a male will watch a rival male copulating with a female, and then when he goes the first male will zoom in and peck at the female’s cloaca to force her to eject the competitor’s sperm and then he inserts his own! It’s all about…

Survival?

Yes.

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