Caught by the River

Birds & People

Roy Wilkinson | 11th September 2013


Birds & People
By Mark Cocker

Jonathan Cape, 592pp, hardback

Review by Roy Wilkinson

In 2009, perhaps getting a bit overexcited, I wrote a newspaper article on the connections between bird life and pop music. There was the way Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Slavonian grebe seemed to share a make-up artist; the behavioural crossover between Gene Vincent and the shag. Here Mark Cocker highlights a great oversight in the above – the budgie which in 1958 sold 20,000 78rpm discs for the Parlophone label. To many bands today these are sales of dream proportions. But, then again, budgie Sparkie had paid his dues – learning over 500 words and over 300 sentences, plus ten nursery rhymes.

Birds & People is a big and fascinating overview of the cultural and existential interfaces between birds and the human race – carrying gravitas in both its breezeblock massiveness and in its contents. Sparkie is very much at the more tabloid-compatible end of Cocker’s compendium. There’s much more meditative, even sombre, content. There are the funeral practices of the Parsee faith, where the dead are left exposed atop the dokhma, a ‘tower of silence’ where the body can be devoured by crows, kites and vultures. There’s also the unsettling mass vocalisation of the black-capped petrel – noises that led people to give diabolical place names to these birds’ Caribbean breeding grounds. Environmentalists now use these place names to home to look for new, undocumented populations of this endangered species.

To many, this writer included, Cocker is the most distinctive avian chronicler going – a wonderful mix of erudition and perspective, communicated in cooly authoritative writing. But with Birds & People he’s not alone. The book is full of compelling images from the wildlife photographer David Tipling. The pages are also interspersed with accounts and anecdotes from the 650 people who responded to Cocker’s request for examples of bird/human interaction. These prose illustrations come from over 80 countries.

The guest contributors and the extracts from other writers give the book a lovely cumulative feel, as if the collective is willing itself on to better understand these things that fly around us. The quote from Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book A Sand County Almanac is typical here, in this case homing in on the biophysical magic of American wildfowl migration:

“By this international commerce of geese, the waste corn of Illinois is carried through the clouds of the Arctic tundra, there to combine with the waste sunlight of a night-less June to grow goslings for all the lands inbetween. And in this annual barter of food for light, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.”

Where Cocker’s earlier book Birds Britannica covered the UK, Birds & People spans the globe. For an occasional birder like myself whole new bird orders, families and genera are introduced: potoos, trogons, hammerkops, bananaquits. But the narrative is hugely inclusive, a great Wunderkammer of waxwings and white-bearded manakins. There also room to fill us in on Sparkie the budgie’s remarkable afterlife. He died with a bank balance of over £1,000 (perhaps £25,000 today). In 2009 the composer Michael Nyman and the German artist Carsten Nicolai performed their new opera, Sparkie: Cage And Beyond. Sparkie’s bodily remains can be viewed even now. His stuffed skin has featured as an attraction at a Newcastle musuem.

Birds & People can be bought from the Caught by the River bookshelf at Rough Trade East priced £40.

Mark Cocker’s blog.