Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience

Tim Birkhead is charmed by a revelation of how our feathered friends affect our lives

May 14, 2009

One day last year I watched three swallows as they sipped water from a spring. Hovering a mere metre away, their ultramarine beauty and proximity were spellbinding. As they flew past me to leave, one brushed my face with its wing: a fleeting, unexpected climax to an extraordinary encounter.

The swallow is iconic, the much-loved prelude to summer. And it is with swallows that Jeremy Mynott begins (and ends) this fascinating book. In a sense, the image he has chosen for the cover - an exquisite 3,500-year-old wall painting of a pair of swallows - is a harbinger of what we are to discover inside.

A Classics scholar and keen birder, Mynott takes us on an illuminating, light-hearted philosophical tour of what it is that fascinates us about birds. We take it for granted today that many people gain great pleasure in birds: watching them, feeding them, keeping them, keeping lists of those seen, studying and protecting them. But what is unexpected is how important birds were to people in the past; as objects of beauty, as augurs, as medicine and as food. Mynott's deep historical knowledge and broad reading reveals, in an engaging way, the remarkable roles that birds have played - and continue to play - in our lives.

As an example of the wide-ranging questions Mynott addresses, he asks why we consider some birds to be more charismatic than others. High on his list of his charismatic favourites are Leach's petrel, the crane and the capercaillie. At the other extreme, the ultimate British trash birds, he proposes, are the woodpigeon, pheasant and Canada goose - the latter two being imports. What makes a bird charismatic, we are told, is a host of attributes including scarcity, beauty, inaccessibility (Leach's petrel), voice and aerial accomplishments. Mynott's intriguing ideas are supplemented by some interesting images and some apposite quotes, including Ted Hughes' swifts materialising "at the tip of a long scream".

For me, one of the best bits of the entire book is tucked away in an appendix, because as Mynott says, it was "too digressive even for my easily distracted text". It concerns a musical interaction between nightingales and the cellist Beatrice Harrison in the 1920s. On warm early summer evenings, Harrison was in the habit of playing her cello outside, when on one occasion, a nightingale joined in. At first she was unaware that it was a nightingale, but was thrilled by the encounter nonetheless. Someone at the BBC decided this would make excellent live radio and in due course, on Saturday 19 May 1924 at 9pm, Harrison started playing. But for almost two hours her melodies failed to stimulate the nightingale to join in. Then, at 10.45pm, just as everyone was giving up hope, the bird burst into song and a hauntingly beautiful duet ensued. As Harrison said: "His voice seemed to come from heaven."

The public response was extraordinary: more than 1 million listeners and 50,000 fan letters, and a repeat performance each year for a further two decades. Indeed, you can listen to one of these evocative recordings on a CD produced by the British Trust for Ornithology, entitled Nightingales: A Celebration, and wonderful it is too. However, all was not quite as it seemed - at least on that first occasion. By some clever detective work, Mynott worked out what really happened. Mindful of the risk involved in a live performance, the BBC took the precaution of employing a certain Maude Gould (aka Madame Saberon), a professional siffleur, or bird impersonator, as a backup. Since the real nightingales had probably been scared off by the BBC's preparations, this was a sensible idea. Clearly, the public was fooled: what we don't know is whether Harrison was in on the scam. I think not. Don't be put off: all subsequent performances were genuine.

Jeremy Mynott's Birdscapes is a journey across uncharted ornithological terrain. He is the ultimate guide: knowledgeable, entertaining and gentle. The result is a wonderful rumination on birds and birders through space and time for anyone interested in our relationship with nature.

Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience

By Jeremy Mynott

Princeton University Press 384pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780691135397

Published 25 March 2009

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