Back on the pictured print TBR (through which I’m not, to be honest, making as much progress as I would have liked, my re-reading project retreating into the mists somewhat (I was going to let myself do some re-reading next year in addition to my Anne Tyler read but only if I cleared this down to one shelf, to give myself a chance not to get a terrible build-up of new books). But here’s a good book that took me a while to read but was infinitely better than the DNF’d “Birders”.

Stephen Moss – “A Bird in the Bush”

(20 August 2019, Oxfam Books)

I, and birders everywhere, watch birds for many different reasons: as a challenge, as a form of collecting, because it gets us out into the open air, because of their aesthetic appeal, to learn more about them, or simply for fun – or indeed for all these reasons put together. (p. 7)

That’s more like it, isn’t it – and there is no judgement made on any of these reasons, apart from a moment about people travelling to tick which we’ll discuss later.

This is a whole history of humankind’s relationship to birds, mainly concentrating on observation, although there are some quite distressing revelations (in their concepts, not their detail) about just how many birds were killed before more enlightened times – and binoculars – came about; not always for sport, but also for examination and capture in art. The Preface plunges us into Birdfair in Rutland, an annual birdwatchers’ extravaganza (which I have actually visited and found Rather Too Much, due largely to the number of exotic holiday companies). We then start off with Gilbert White of Selbourne and his contemporaries / people influenced by him, and then go back to find hte mentions of birds in antiquity, working our way through the development of the natural sciences to the science and sociology of birdwatching today.

I wasn’t so interested in the development of bird tourism, as I’ve never been a twitcher or particular collector, and like observing any sort of bird in its habitat – I get a lot of joy out of the simple heron observed on my runs – and there was quite a lot on that, however Moss does make the point nicely when comparing modern luxury bird tourism with the first explorers outside the UK:

So as the world has shrunk in terms of ease of travel, so the opportunities available to the global birder have multiplied. But is the world lister, struggling to see two or three species they “need” while ignoring any other birds around them, happier than the two lads coping with the perils of dysentry and wild dogs in order to get out and watch birds? One suspects not. (p. 262)

However, the tracing of the development of the science and practice of birding, dispelling myths and working out family relationships, gradually developing country lists and forming protective societies – here the book covers the UK and US – is fascinating. Women are considered throughout, where he can find them, or mentioned as being excluded for example from Victorian science, and there’s a chapter devoted to examining why women feel and get excluded from birding which also looks at other minority groups and hopes for change. 

The main arc, though, runs from bird/egg collection to observation, whether that’s in the individuals he carefully describes and brings back in as the history moves on to society as a whole. A very decent book and an interesting history of a hobby.

Heron in flight

How can this fail to thrill? (photo (c) Liz Dexter 2020)

How’s your reading going this month? I have a lot of work on and reading is taking a bit of a back seat, which is disappointing, but I’m carving out what time I can.