For me, a new title by Tim Birkhead has been a must-read ever since I came across his The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Birds a few years ago. His latest book shares the many strengths of his earlier books. In it, Professor Birkhead fulfils his ongoing mission to communicate scientific discoveries to the non-specialist in a way that both informs and entertains. Much of its success, and charm, is down to the author’s equal fascination with birds and the human species who have made them their study, and quarry!
The book begins with an introduction to the cave in Spain which was discovered at the beginning of the last century, and revealed that our Neolithic ancestors were not just fascinated by bison! Over two hundred birds are part of a frieze which in simple diagrammatic form records at least sixteen recognisable species, including great bustards and flamingos. The author’s wise and humorous pondering on why they were painted sets the tone for all that follows- he is less convinced by older theories of shamanism and leans toward the option that they were a hunter’s field guide. From there he explores the abiding fascination of birds since, whether religious, scientific, or culinary and down to our, as he sees it, fragile modern-day devotion.
We read about the four million mummified birds found in temples in ancient Egypt, the beginning of scientific observations with Aristotle, the medieval craze for falconry, the dawn of modern science, the excesses of Victorian amateurs and the millions of birds they shot for posterity, and the very recent age of birdwatching.
We meet many curious and sometimes tragic human characters along the way, like Allan Octavian Hume, who described, and shot thousands of birds in India, before having his entire catalogue stolen by a servant, who then sold it for scrap paper. Hume turned to Theosophy and put away his guns forever. Tim Birkhead weaves into, very modestly, his own enormous knowledge and research, especially concerning Guillemots, about which he has some good news.
It is probably inaccurate to categorise Tim Birkhead’s writing as ‘Nature Writing’ as he always, as in this case, mixes popular science with history too, but he does explore many of the same concerns and dilemmas. He agrees with Barry Lopez that there is much to dread in the predicament that humanity has brought upon the world and promotes a sense of wonder, curiosity and empathy as an antidote.
I have a few reservations about how he handles the tensions between the ideas of Darwin and the Church- Stephen Jay Gould was not the only person who has suggested that the legendary fall out between Bishop Sam Wilberforce and T.H. Huxley was exactly that- but Birds and Us is a rewarding, informative and hugely enjoyable read, and the author is a hugely engaging, enthusiastic, and often humorous guide in a field that can be a bit stodgy.
- Birds and Us by Tim Birkhead is published by Penguin Books (£25.00). To order a copy go to www.penguin.co.uk
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.