Ceri Levy reviews the highlights of recently published words on birds.
Three bird-related books landed on my overly cluttered desk in the last couple of weeks and all of them are deserving of my attention. Each comes from a very different perspective; one is a book about the world of conservation; the next is about birds during wartime and the third is a sumptuous art book looking at how birds are physically put together but with a twist.
First up is Mark Avery’s Fighting For Birds. This is an in-depth book that explores how the conservation world works and explains just how difficult it can be to save bird species. Avery worked for the RSPB for 25 years and became their Conservation Director, so he is in a pretty good position to talk about saving species. The book starts off with a tour of Mark’s formative early years getting into the world of birds but this is not an autobiography. It is about thoughts, opinions and ideas on how to work with, protect and keep species and special places alive and well. One gets the feeling that to truly express his views Mark could only do so once he had left the RSPB.
“We are often told that nature conservation is a luxury we cannot afford when it stands in the way of economic progress…”
Fighting For Birds is a book that lays out how NGO’s work, how politicians support or don’t support projects, who to speak to, how to speak to them and what to speak about once in a position to do so. It is a political business looking after our natural world with meeting after meeting, a watching of p’s and q’s, talk and counter talk and the smoothing of feathers between various parties. Avery’s views are opinionated and I like this. His thoughts on hunting and suggestions of how to stop the continual murder of birds of prey in the UK appeal to my sensibilities. The persecution of raptors is a disgusting sideshow that accompanies events like grouse shoots and the cultivation of grouse moors at the expense of all other creatures and habitat is genuinely sickening, although grouse moor managers will tell you a different story as to how their work actually helps biodiversity. Avery sets out many different options for the situation and ultimately indicates that the banning of grouse shoots may be the only way to save so many of our birds of prey, particularly the Hen Harrier, which is now down to the last breeding pair in England. He is probably right.
Fighting for Birds is an extraordinary work. It explains most aspects of conservation in a succinct, intelligible way that makes one want to pick up the gauntlet and do what one can to join the fight for birds. Inspirational and enlightening it may be but most of all it shows exactly where we are in our race to save our wildlife and urges us all to do more. You want to be a conservationist? Then read this book.
Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann is not what I expected. It is a war story and the birds in a cage are four young men and ornithologists, John Buxton, Peter Conder, George Waterston and John Barrett, who are individually taken as prisoners of war very early on during the Second World War and find themselves detained for the duration of the war. Sent off to various POW camps they each appear to be at first mentally disarmed by the experience of incarceration. But gradually one by one they begin to accept their positions and look to birds for succour and solace. Eventually they all came together in the same camp at Warburg and formed a bird society, working on scientific data and taking copious notes on the various birds that they could see regularly including goldfinches, wrynecks and crows. Birds alleviated the boredom of perpetual imprisonment and at a time when birding wasn’t the most common of hobbies they were amongst the first people to take note of visible migration as the seasons rolled by counting thousands of rooks, jackdaws and skylarks as they migrated overhead and all without the aid of binoculars or any of the modern day equipment that birders take for granted.
German guards occasionally viewed the birders scientific note taking while as cover for illicit spying missions. The guards believed them to really be working on discovering possible escape routes from the various camps and taking down times of guard movements around the camp and often this would result in a spell of solitary confinement as punishment. For the POW’s this was actually heaven to be able to get away from everyone and everything and have some time alone. But eventually most guards believed they were genuine birdwatchers, which helped them greatly as they were then able to take down information on timings of guard changes and routines to help inform potential escape attempts with the occasional success of freedom.
All four of our protagonists ended up in one way or another deep inside the bird world when the war was over. George Waterston founded the Fair Isle Bird Observatory and as director of RSPB Scotland, established the Loch Garten Osprey watch, while John Barrett and Peter Conder worked at the Skokholm reserve in Wales together. Barrett would eventually write books that inspired many to take to the natural world, and Conder became the director of the RSPB, helping it in its advance towards the modern entity we know it as today. John Buxton wrote The Redstart, one of the most important nature books of the 20th century and it incorporated much of the work he undertook in the POW camps.
Katrina van Grouw’s book The Unfeathered Bird is a unique wonder that has joined the bird book firmament and as soon as I saw it I recognised it to be a monumental achievement. Having filmed Katrina and her husband Hein for The Bird Effect, while she was working on this book, I had been desperate to see how it had turned out. In short, it’s a magnum opus and deserves plaudits as one of the most innovative art and natural history books out there. Art meets science as Katrina bridges the disciplines in a way that I believe has never been done before. Perhaps only she could have done this and united her two work paths of fine artist, studying at the Royal College of Art, and scientist,¬ as curator of the bird skins collection at the Natural History Museum in Tring for seven years. This labour of love has been 25 years in the planning and will fascinate its readers. Katrina’s passion, desire and belief have brought her dream to the outside world.
Wanting to create a new type of anatomical book for artists to work from, she shows skeletons of birds in realistic action poses as opposed to the static still poses that are struck in museum collections but the book has developed into something much grander and more beautiful than an intriguing artists research book. She breaks down the fabric of what makes a bird and connects the physical bones with the indefinable essence of birds themselves making this an accessible book for all. By using dead materials Katrina creates life in the very act of being lived.
For months Katrina worked on drawings of different aspects of bird bones and their anatomical positioning – often put in place by her staunch ally and husband, Hein, who is now the curator of bird skins at Tring – to create a unique take on movement and what makes birds what they are. Katrina has also written the text, which hits the right tone and the writings compliment the drawings and one feels in the presence of someone who understands the essence of what makes a bird.
My favourite drawing in the book is the great bustard skeleton in displaying mode as I had dinner with Katrina and Hein on a day when they were boiling this bird’s bones to get them ready to strike this pose. A dead bustard had been donated by the Great Bustard Group, which is singularly responsible for bringing the once UK extinct bustard back to us. It amused me to see the bird cookery next to our pasta dish for the evening’s meal. And as funny as it was I also saw the dedication to the cause. By any means possible was the mantra. At no point did I feel put off by Bustard broth being prepared at my dinnertime.
A few weeks later, I went back to see the newly assembled bustard skeleton and the drawing that Katrina had just completed of it. She showed me hundreds of other drawings and I realised then that The Unfeathered Bird was going to be a miraculous book and so it has proved to be. Prepare to be amazed as death brings to life the world of birds.