Flight of fancy for the field

Birds Britannica
November 18, 2005

An anthology of British bird-life soars above the competition thanks to some local knowledge, writes Tim Birkhead

The market for bird books seems to be inexhaustible - the succession of new titles attesting to the universal popularity of our feathered friends. The unending flow of new books, particularly for the popular market, means that much material is recycled, and originality as scarce as hen's teeth. But in Birds Britannica we have the most original and delightful bird book to have appeared for decades. The concept is one of genius, first pioneered by Richard Mabey in his wonderful and extremely successful Flora Britannica (1996).

As with most good ideas, the approach is simple. Basically, it comprises a list of each species occurring in the British landscape with a brief but carefully crafted account of its biology and folklore, together with - and this is the important bit - the comments and observations of ordinary people who sent Mabey their stories. This winning formula provided information not readily available elsewhere and - importantly - allowed the readers to feel as though they had made vital contributions to the book.

Mabey's appearance as a co-author, with Mark Cocker, requires a word of explanation. After the rapturous reception of Flora Britannica , other publishers were quick to see the commercial potential of "Britannicas"

covering other aspects of the British flora and fauna, and a rather poor one duly appeared.

The concept of Birds Britannica was Mabey's but, as Cocker points out in the introduction, because of illness, Mabey was unable to participate in the project to the extent originally anticipated. However, to ensure the strong conceptual link with Flora Briannica , the publishers were keen to include him as a co-author. And so he should be: the Britannica concept is fabulous, and Cocker has produced a book worthy of its predecessor.

A treasure trove of information, the photographs are stunning, and the text reverberates with unbridled enthusiasm for birds. Like its predecessor, Birds Britannica includes information provided by the public. Far too modestly, Cocker says that he has acted as a mere editor of this popular bird lore, but the stories and observations provided by the public capture an important slice of our culture. Together with a wealth of carefully researched historical observations, the book provides a rich cultural tapestry linking past and present. Cocker uses this to place our current relationship with birds in an insightful context. It is about how people see birds in a cultural landscape and how birds have responded to a literal landscape created by people. This is a book with huge appeal; whatever your interest in birds, whether it is watching them, photographing them or eating them, there is something here for everyone.

In the past, we exploited birds ruthlessly. The current generation of bird lovers has been successfully brainwashed into thinking that killing and eating little birds is wrong. It is, yet earlier generations harvested and consumed finches and larks with the same anonymity and gustatory impunity as we eat shrimp today. For many it is anathema even to mention such things, yet the catching of birds for the table by our ancestors required great skill and tremendous knowledge of their habits. As such, bird catchers were among the first ornithologists. We might not like it, but, as Cocker is at pains to point out, we should not pretend it didn't happen. It still happens of course, albeit in a more controlled and selective way, and the shooting of pheasants and grouse, for example, has a huge impact on our landscapes and our birdlife.

The extent to which different bird species feature in our cultural history reflects partly their abundance, but also the way they impinge on our lives. As a result, the entries for some species, such as the unobtrusive rock pipit, are brief, while for others, such as the house sparrow, starling, swallow, swan, pheasant, wren and members of the notorious crow family, anecdotes abound.

The wren, our smallest bird, whose disproportionately loud voice is also one of the most familiar, was once hunted and killed in a bizarre ritual - a tradition that apparently persists in Ireland. The familiar garden-dwelling dunnock appears a model of propriety. Indeed, it seemed so boringly conventional that for years it was studiously overlooked by professional ornithologists. Yet the dunnock's love life takes some beating - Cocker describes it as the kind of bird Philip Larkin should have celebrated. Both sexes have multiple partners and copulate dozens of times a day. To sustain such prodigious sperm output, the male's testicles are huge and weigh in at about 4 per cent of his body weight: in human terms, equivalent to having testicles the size of mangos.

The rook is clearly Cocker's favourite; its sociable, garrulous and promiscuous habits mirroring our own. Its association with man is one of symbiosis: without our agricultural landscape there would be no rooks.

Their conspicuous colonies mean that the rook is responsible for more place names than any other British bird: Rookwood, Rookhill, Rookery Farm, and so on. But this is a love-hate relationship: the rooks' predilection for grain is responsible for that ubiquitous totem of the British countryside, the scarecrow. It also meant persecution and in the past rookeries provided a welcome source of human protein, the young birds taken or shot just before they fledged and served in a pie. As Cocker points out, this rustic delicacy has not quite vanished: "Several pubs in the Badminton area take advantage of the May cull and have a Rook Pie Night."

Birds are fascinating, beautiful and important. They enrich peoples' lives and this wonderful book will do the same.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behaviour and evolution, Sheffield University.

Birds Britannica

Author - Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 518
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 7011 6907 9

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