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The Wonder of Their Ways

By (January 1, 2010) No Comment


By Jeff Mynott
Princeton University Press, 2009

The Bird

By Colin Tudge
Crown, 2009

Every autumn, I say my farewells to old friends. As the days shorten and the winds turn wintry, the house martins leave the eaves of my potting shed, and the warblers, swifts, and plovers who’ve shared the warm summer months with me one by one depart. The skies lower, the nights come early, and my few gardening chores are accompanied by some ne’er-do-well carrion crows and a solitary, melancholy barn owl. Even enlivened by family and holidays, the months seem long. And oh, the joy I feel every spring, when all those old friends return, bringing song and color and variety to my garden again. From the end of low-hanging branches or the tops of fence posts, they regard me with their glinting black eyes, and I let myself think they recognize me, that of all the similar likely prospects, they come back to my garden not through some arid instinct but out of sentiment; I smile to believe they like me as much as I like them. My year is boundaried on all sides by birds, and it has been as long as I can remember.

Certainly as a young girl, I invested the various pigeons and sparrows and robins around my parents’ house with elaborate life histories. And this was as nothing compared to the great camaraderie that grew up between my sister and I and the budgerigars my parents owned in succession throughout our childhood – there was true friendship, mutual care and concern, innumerable shared confessions from the heart. If any adult had thought to tell me then that those creatures weren’t human – that twenty centuries of philosophical thought held them to be in every way inferior to me – I would have stared in disbelief.

This was my first reaction to the story of Genesis, and I confess it has remained my reaction to this day. On the fifth day of Creation, God brings birds into being and sets them to fly under the brand-new sky. I’ve tried to picture this – huge flocks of birds in their various kind, darting and wheeling through new air, the first ones to see the landscape God had created only the previous day, the first ones to watch the rivers glistening in the morning sun, the first ones to hear the trees rustling in the breeze, indeed, the first ones to feel a breeze at all. The newly-created sea-creatures no doubt had their own world to explore, but it wasn’t our world, nor did they see it with our senses. The first ones to see ripe fruit on the branch, to hear wind walking through tall grass, to feel cool wet sand under their feet – these were the birds, and even as a child, I had the same thought when I imagined it: how lonely they must have been, without us.

We have been watching them, noting them, describing them (and, alas, killing them) during our entire time on this planet, and our existences are entwined. As the two books under review make clear, this is a complicated process, a compulsive one, and a very old one; it’s a process that has always had two sides, and these two books perfectly epitomize those sides. Colin Tudge’s The Bird displays our urge to classify and analyze our avian neighbors (Aristotle and the Elder Pliny would have read it with deep interest), and Jeff Mynott’s Birdscapes conveys our extra-factual fascination with birds (Sei Shonagon and Gilbert White would have excerpted passages with great enthusiasm). In any publishing season, each type of book will have ample company on bookstore shelves, but these two are much the best from this last season, and each in its own way is well worth your time.

They’re especially worth it if you spend an appreciable amount of that time studying birds, in whatever capacity. Those who have the passion but lack the credentials for such study will be cheered, as I was, by Mynott’s softly-warbled battle cry at the beginning of his book about the joys and wonders of encountering birds:

After all, it is the observations and records of thousands of ordinary birdwatchers that provide so much of our knowledge about bird migration and distribution, for example the arrival and departure dates of migrants in different parts of the country. Scientists may call it phenology when they do it, but the data are largely supplied by amateurs.

And you will find the same companionably personal note in Tudge’s far more systematic natural history of birds, as when he’s talking about cross-breeding in the bird world:

Sometimes, however, hybrids thrive perfectly well – and sometimes too well. Ducks are great hybridizers: it seems that just about any species of duck can and on occasion does hybridize with any other species of duck. On the canal and rivers near my house, the ducks often seem to be a fine old mixture.

Perhaps this tone comes from the fact that both Mynott and Tudge are themselves passionate amateurs. Mynott is the former chief executive of Cambridge University Press, and Tudge is a former producer of BBC documentaries – and each has just exactly that much background in ornithology. One can’t help but sense that their books originated from the same intensely personal feelings birds inspire in so many people. The American natural history writer David Quammen puts it rather prettily:

A thought crosses your mind before you roll over and, contentedly, resume sleeping. The thought is: “Thank God I live here, right here exactly, in their path. Thank God for those birds.” The honk of wild Canada geese passing overhead in the night is a sound to freshen the human soul. The question is why.

Indeed, the question is why. A part of it is surely that they have colonized the air – although that cannot be all of it, since bats have done the same thing and are widely reviled, and insects even more so. No, there is something further about birds, something that explains their ubiquity in human culture. A bird gave Noah hope that the waters were receding; a bird was Plato’s natural avatar for the human soul; birds have signified the undying love between human beings in everything from the verses of the Koran to the lyrics of Man of La Mancha; my grandson informs me that birds even thrive on the planet Vulcan. Obviously, some factor beyond mere flight is involved here, and each of these books is not only animated by that something but in quest to examine it.

It is necessarily an old quest. Birds first arose in the Jurassic period, 140 million years ago, and current thinking roughly estimates that something like two million different species have existed on Earth at one time or another – 12,000 in the Pliocene alone. These species ranged from the eight-foot-tall Diatryma that roamed the North American plains 60 million years ago to flyspeck proto-warblers from the same period whose fossilized bones are as brittle as dry grass. That wide variety carries over even into historical times and embraces both the mighty moa of New Zealand and Madagascar, which grew to ten feet tall, weighed some 600 pounds, and was exterminated by humans, and the humble (but incredibly populous) passenger pigeon, whose flocks once darkened the skies of America and whose last representative, Martha, died in a zoo at 1 pm on 1 September 1914. An estimated 8,530 species of bird exist in the world today, and Mynott and Tudge are interested in all of them.

The reach of that interest is the central charm of both these books. I can stomach an intensive study of the bearded tit with the best of them, but what I want from my nature books is breadth of vision, and perhaps a touch of humour – and both Birdscapes and The Bird provide that. Mynott’s book is the less formal of the two, taking the reader (and hopefully his non-birding wife as well – as he remarks, this book is his last and best attempt to spark her interest) often charmingly into his evolution as an amateur bird expert:

Occasionally you get help from a prominent physical feature. That burly roller-type bird on a distant dead tree makes a little foray after some large flying insect and reveals the distinctive white spots on the wings – ah, yes, the dollar bird; I’ve read about that. It is so named because the spots were thought to look like Spanish silver dollars. By a similar if less whimsical process of inference I work out the spangled drongo, blue-faced honeyeater, pied butcherbird, and silver-crowned friarbird, though in no cases do I initially recognise them as such. But gradually I get my eye and ear in and start to understand how things fit together and relate to one another, and by the end of the day I find that I have identified about seventy species securely, with a few more “probables” and several “what on earth was that!”s.

Tudge mirrors this with more scientific – but no less passionate and therefore no less inviting – curiosity about all things avian, including that celebrated subject of song and schoolyard taunt, bird brains:

I wonder, too, if the catalogue of contrasts between birds and mammals also applies to their brains and hence to their ways of thinking. Clearly, the overall structure of the bird’s brain is very different from the mammal’s – birds emphasize the cerebellum, concerned with muscular coordination, more than the cerebrum, concerned with what we call thought. But birds clearly do think nonetheless. Crows and parrots in particular are positively bright, often eerily so. But do they think the same way as we do? Or do they have ways of processing information quite different from ours? If they were philosophers, would they invent a different logic?

I’m not so ready as Tudge is to assume that birds aren’t already philosophers, but then, I’ve probably lived with them a bit longer than he has. Tudge cannot permit himself such fancies, since his is a fairly straightforward natural history of avian life on Earth. Mynott gets to have more fun, and he does so in part by inviting his readers to believe he himself – with what must be vastly more birding experience than most of them – shares their confusion as they enter the world of identification and classification:

I manage to identify a clutch of cuckoos (is that the right collective noun? – it might suit parrots better): little bronze cuckoo (a bit like a wryneck to look at), brush cuckoo (another small one, with a grey head and olive underparts), common koel (also a cuckoo, and must be named after the call, a slow but penetrating koeeel), and the amazing channel-billed cuckoo (just what it says on the tin). … The gaudy parrots aren’t as easy as you might think, since they always seem to be just flying away, but in the end I make out the red-winged parrot, the very numerous sulphur-crested cockatoos, and the rainbow and varied lorikeets, though I’m still not sure when a parrot becomes a cockatoo, lorikeet, or rosella.

I don’t believe this for a moment, of course (and Mynott might want to confess his game if cornered by any cockatoo-owners, whose head-crests will be fully extended in outrage that their feathered darlings could possibly be mistaken for parrots or, Lord help us, lorikeets), but it’s quite entertaining nonetheless. The pranksters of the bird world prompt even Tudge to friendly anecdotes:

Parrots are the other [in addition to New Caledonian crows] acknowledged prodigies of the bird world. On of the favorite tricks of New Zealand’s Keas is to drop stones on the roofs of houses (corrugated-metal or roofs of bungalows are much favored in those parts) until the owners emerge, and then fly off with much psittacine chortling (or so it seems). At about the age of eight, I and my hooligan chums used to do much the same.

Lily and Holly

“Birds are not like us,” Tudge quite rightly states, “and we do them no favors if we suppose they are.” And yet he insists they share at least one important thing in common with humans: they, too, are driven by emotion. This leads Tudge onto some thin suppositional ice indeed; for instance, his contention that “… of course birds enjoy sex. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t do it …” strikes me as grounded entirely in the presuppositions only a human denizen of the semi-affluent West could make. It’s faintly possible that non-human species (with their cerebellums brightly firing) might operate from different motivations than those that obtain in a Notting Hill discotheque. Despite his research, Tudge occasionally commits the odd gaffe like this (or his contention that Archaeopteryx ever actually flew, which it certainly did not). But I continually forgave him, because he is always earnestly engaged in answering Quammen’s question: what is it about birds that so ensnares us? What is the key to the mystery that has wedded them to every human culture in history?

I wonder if it isn’t Mynott, our unassuming guide through the science, the literature, and especially the field experience of birds who comes the closest to solving this mystery. At one point in his book (which I would reluctantly recommend slightly over Tudge’s if you could only purchase one – although every bird enthusiast should of course purchase both) he’s on windswept Flannan Isle in search of the breeding colonies of Leach’s petrel known to haunt the place. He leaves the (relative, I’m certain) comfort of his tent at a godforsaken hour to see what he can find, and I think he stumbles upon the heart of our mystery:

At 1.45 AM I put on my boots and rainwear and unzip the tent-flap to have a recce. Immediately I hear a strange, muffled call nearby, something between a chuckle and a gurgle. Can it possibly be …? As soon as I get outside the tent I hear it again, more clearly, and then several more, and then a longer sequence of calls in a wild, chattering rhythm, and then the whole devil’s chorus. I walk in what seems to be the direction of these screaming spirits, just the other side of the lighthouse; and suddenly here they all are, whirling round me in their bat-veering, butterfly-floating flight, even brushing me with their wings, several hundred birds, shrieking like Gaelic goblins on acid, as someone put it – the full Leach’s experience. Each time the beam from the great light comes round I see them briefly illuminated in the air, as if blown in like leaves; they are pitching down right by my feet to enter their nesting-holes; I can pick out individual birds with my torch at ranges down to a yard as they crash-land and then flop into a burrow.

Indeed: Magic. I can think of no better answer.

Now the carrion crows are harrying my poor steadfast owl, and I must go and tell them to behave.

Honoria St. Cyr was an executive secretary in London for forty-five years and now enjoys her retirement years in Islington, tending to her garden and her books.