Things with feathers

A Marvelous Spatuletail

Published in The Literary Review in September 2013 under the title Soar Like a Bananaquit

Birds and People
By Mark Cocker
Photographs by David Tipling
Jonathan Cape 592pp £40

A Manx Shearwater was ringed as a three-month-old chick in its Welsh nest burrow. Fourteen days later the same bird arrived, unaccompanied by any of its kin, in its species’ usual winter quarters off the coast of Argentina, some 8,000 kilometres away. An individual bird may repeat that same oceanic journey, back and forth, 100 times before it dies. In Victorian London the owner of a coaching inn at Elephant and Castle kept a raven. The bird was also friendly with a number of the drivers and would set out on short happy excursions perched on top of their coaches, switching vehicles whenever an inbound driver happened to pass to take him back to the inn. Once home, the raven would consort with his closest friend, a large pet dog in the stables.

These two anecdotes from Birds and People offer glimpses into the range of ways in which birds fascinate people and in which we interact. The book is massive – nearly 600 large pages of text, photography and illustration describing the appearance and behaviour of thousands of bird species in some 200 taxonomic families. It also surveys the myriad ways in which people have marvelled at, told stories about, mimicked, represented, trained (even, in the case of ostriches, ridden), exploited and – above all – killed and eaten them. Insights and experiences from 650 people in 81 countries are interwoven into Mark Cocker’s fluent text to create a tapestry that is by turns fascinating, delightful, surprising and grim. Birds and People rewards the idle browser and will be an important addition to the shelves of anyone who cares about how we interact with the non-human world or what sort of creatures we ourselves are becoming.

Cocker has come to this project, ten years in the making, by a winding path. Earlier books focused on European colonial exploitation and the destruction of indigenous peoples. Over the last two decades, however, he has turned to natural history, which, he writes, ‘can serve as a metaphor for life itself’. Cocker has specialised in birds but his attention has always been as much on the human observer as on the observed. Birds Britannica (2005), the insular precursor to this global work, is a titanic compendium in its own right, brimming with literature, history and anthropology relating to the birds of the British Isles. Crow Country (2008) is a more intimate portrait of a single species and its place in myth and lore. It is also in part an autobiography, charting adjustment to life in the Norfolk countryside after leaving behind the city. It’s a much-loved and admired work.

Birds, writes Cocker, often seem so much more intensely alive than we are. ‘They walk on the earth on two legs just as we do but then they perform something we never have. They rise up and fly away.’ Their central symbolic value in art, thought and religion, he claims, is that of transformation from one state to another. ‘The idea is ancient, visceral and undeniable. Mesolithic infants have been found buried with their heads resting on swans’ wings.’ All this may be true, but two of the things that come across most strongly in Birds and People are how various, beautiful, strange and downright comical birds can be, and how cruel, blind, bone-headed, inventive, sensitive and thoughtful humans can be.

There are birds in this book of which – unless you are exceptionally knowledgeable – you probably knew little if anything beforehand. I was delighted to discover the Rufous-crested Coquette, the Bananaquit and the Montezuma Oropendola, the largest of all songbirds. Even where a bird may be relatively familiar, the photographs and essays are often richly rewarding. I revelled in the Temminck’s Tragopan, which has an electric-blue bib with polka dots and scarlet flashes, and electric-blue pointy ‘antennae’ like a child’s drawing of a Martian, as well as the Prairie Chicken, which has a bright amber spot on its puffed-upneck: a traffic light on a goitre. I was dumbfounded by the impish Blackish Cinclodes, which likes to pick at open wounds on the necks of elephant seals. And there are avian interactions with humans that illuminate virtually every dimension of experience. I devoured accounts of swifts as emblems of summer, swifts as birds of confusion and mystery, swifts and human architecture and the exploitation of swifts. And I guffawed at the fabrications provided by Laurens van der Post to gullible British royals and prime ministers about the honeyguide and the honey badger (he claimed that the former could induce the latter to bite the testicles off unappreciative humans).

David Tipling’s photographs of the birds described in Cocker’s text and the anecdotes of his collaborators, including Jonathan Elphick and John Fanshawe, are gorgeous. Birds and People also contains numerous non-photographic representations. Many, from old familiars such as Audubon’s unsurpassed early-19th-century engravings of the birds of North America and the posters in which toucans advertise Guinness, are familiar. But there are also carvings and other objects made by indigenous peoples and artists across the ages, and some of these are very fine indeed. An image from Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, more than 7,700 years old, of a vulture dwarfing two apparently headless human bodies, is charged with great power. A 4,500-year-old Egyptian painting of red-breasted geese could not be bettered today. A stylised carving of a rhino hornbill by the Iban people of Borneo is simply stunning, as is a Trobriand Islands motif based on a frigate bird – carved, I assume, for the prow of a canoe. Tolly Nason’s sculptures of the beaks of Darwin's finches show one way to marry the marvels of science and art.

With such abundant riches on display, it may seem churlish to find any fault with this book. One weakness, however, is the index, which does not list a number of the bird species described in the text. And perhaps stand-alone essays on how our understanding of birds has developed would have been a pleasing counterpoint to the family and species-based organisation of the whole. These could have covered anything and everything from the evolution of birds from dinosaurs to some of the most astonishing now-extinct species, to our growing appreciation of the complexity of birdsong and the navigational capabilities of some species.

What will the future bring for birds and people? Never before has human pressure on birds and their habitats been so great. Of the 10,500 bird extant species, 1,313 are on the Red List of endangered species and 197 are on the brink of extinction. On the other hand, never before have so many people been concerned about birds or made greater efforts to protect them and their habitats.

‘As soon as human beings discovered symbolism, they invented augury,’ writes Ruth Padel; history is full of warnings. Two species of pigeon – the dodo from Mauritius and the North American Passenger Pigeon – have become icons of extinction. In the mid-19th century a migrating flock of a billion Passenger Pigeons was recorded. John Muir wrote of them that ‘no other bird seemed to us so wonderful. The beautiful wanderers flew like the winds in flocks of millions from climate to climate … flocks streaming south … so large that they were flowing from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long.’ By 1914 every single one was gone.

Remarkably, however, some populations are increasing. Yet another pigeon, the collared dove, seems to be especially successful. From a desert region in the Middle East it has colonised Europe and North America in a century, without any deliberate human encouragement. An increase in the population of snow geese from 600,000 in the 1950s to ten million today is widely regarded as a conservation triumph. Attitudes to once-hated species can change. For as long as records exist, owls have been despised and feared as ill omens and spirits of the dead across virtually all of Africa. They are spat at by visitors to Khartoum Zoo and set on fire when they land on South African roofs at night. With that continent’s human population forecast to grow to three or four billion by 2100, its owls look doomed. But Cocker provides a glimpse of hope. Where, in Kenya, a rising, educated generation comes into contact with owls and observes what they actually are, rather than what suspicion dictates them to be, happy cohabitation is the result.

The Anthropocene is a time of rapid and unpredictable transformations. Much blood and destruction may look inevitable, but even this is not completely certain. In the mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the coast of northwest America, the raven is a trickster, playful but mischievous and destructive. Yet he is also the creator, giving endlessly of himself that life as a whole may flourish. Chickens, which we slaughter and consume by the billion every year, are the closest living relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, and as the joke goes in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.’