BIRDSCAPES: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience. Jeremy Mynott. xiv + 367 pp. Princeton University Press, 2009. $29.95.
THE BIRD: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live. Colin Tudge. xvi + 462 pp. Crown Publishers, 2008. $30.
The beauty and mystery of birds have inspired thousands of books about all aspects of their diversity, behavior, morphology, conservation and identification. Yet as two recent arrivals, The Bird and Birdscapes, demonstrate, those topics have not yet been exhausted.
The Bird, by science writer Colin Tudge, is the more typical book by far. A full 20 percent of the text is devoted to chapter 4, “All the Birds in the World: An Annotated Cast List.” Other sections describe what makes a bird a bird, how birds live and how we live with birds. Fortunately, the writing is lively and appealing, and the text is filled with interesting tidbits of information. Readers learn, for example, that modern broiler chickens, “raced from egg to puffed-up oven weight in six weeks,” don’t live long enough to grow a sturdy wishbone.
Tudge’s chapter describing the orders and families of all the world’s birds will be of great interest to the casual birdwatcher or wildlife enthusiast—it reads more like a catalog of wonders than an ornithological manual. However, by necessity each entry is extremely brief, and to knowledgeable readers some of his omissions are glaring. When discussing the Hawaiian honeycreepers, for example, Tudge fails to mention that they are among the most critically endangered birds in the world.
Despite this lack of comprehensiveness, The Bird will be a welcome addition to the library of any bird lover because it is so enjoyable to read.
Jeremy Mynott’s Birdscapes is much less conventional. Mynott, a lifelong birder and former publishing executive, writes in the preface that the book “has been in the nature of an exploration for me, a journey whose sights and sounds I did not fully foresee when I started and whose destination was unclear.” And a strange journey it is. Mynott discusses not just species differences, birdsong, conservation and nomenclature, but such matters as how humans have used images and metaphors of birds to piece together ideas, which birds people profess to like the most, and how our interest in birds is affected by conceptions of rarity and beauty. The book’s recurring themes, he says, are “the snares of sentimentality, the pros and cons of anthropomorphism, the interplay between what we perceive in birds and what we project onto them, and the power of metaphors, names, and symbols to express or distort our vision.” The tone varies, ranging from playful, conspiratorial and poetic to dryly academic, thoughtful and poignant. Mynott is erudite and insightful, but his meandering was not always to my taste. The text sometimes struck me as self-indulgent and strangely lacking in focus.
Opening the book at random, you might find a passage from Romeo and Juliet (was it a lark that Romeo heard, or a nightingale?), an exploration of how to see nature properly (with an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s suggestion that nature is just an unsatisfactory imitation of art), or a discussion of how French bird names differ from English ones. You could also come across something that seems at first glance to have nothing whatever to do with birds—illustration 24, for example, which consists of photographs of four nude actresses on stage at the Windmill Theatre in London. Mynott explains that British authorities decreed in 1940 that onstage nudity was acceptable as long as actresses were in poses that were “motionless and expressionless.” His point is that animation has a key effect on the observer and is fundamental to our reactions to birds. This may well be, but for me he has strayed too far off topic here.
Who is the intended audience for Birdscapes? Mynott certainly has enthusiasm to spare, but his style is too pedantic for a popular audience. The book appears to be aimed at intellectual birders who love literature. They are likely to delight in Mynott’s erudition and find the book’s idiosyncrasies charming.
To illustrate the differences in approach between The Bird and Birdscapes, let’s examine the way Tudge and Mynott cover similar ground. In chapter 3 of The Bird, “Keeping Track: The Absolute Need to Classify,” Tudge jumps right into the fray, asserting,
It’s a simple question of the kind six-year-olds ask: How many kinds of birds are there? But as with most of the questions that six-year-olds ask, the answer is that nobody knows, and nobody can ever know—at least not exactly.
What follows is a fairly standard 30-page overview of taxonomy and systematics, progressing in a predictably breezy fashion from Linnaeus to Darwin and beyond, ending with the revolutionary DNA-DNA hybridization studies of Charles Sibley and Jon Edward Ahlquist. Tudge stays within the traditional boundaries of the topic and provides a discussion that newcomers will welcome.
Mynott is more circuitous. He opens his chapter on nomenclature and classification, “Seeing a Difference,” with an anecdote about a birding trip to the Isles of Scilly, where he sees but fails to recognize a semi-palmated sandpiper, “a five-star rarity.” He misidentifies it as a stint and is then corrected by ornithologist Peter Grant. “What had Peter noticed that I had missed?,” he wonders. He then goes off on one tangent after another as he discusses distinctions and differences, species and individuals, observing and perceiving, illusion and self-deception, and patterns and profiles. He squeezes in just three lines from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species but expounds for pages on Sherlock Holmes, master observer and perceiver. Mynott brings the discussion back around to birds by proposing that the three most important attributes of birdwatchers are “1) active attention, 2) informed expectation, and 3) ambition of imagination.” It is clear that attribute number three is where his interest lies.
Neither of these books gives a full picture of birds and birding, but both are entertaining and contain much that’s worth knowing. Choose The Bird if you like to devour a book in one or two sittings. Birdscapes is best read piecemeal—you’ll want to consume it in small bites, in birdlike fashion.
Aaron French, who has a master’s degree in ecology, spent two years living with the Baka pygmies in Cameroon, studying birds and monkeys. He is now the chef of the Sunny Side Café in Albany, California. His Web site can be found at http://www.eco-chef.com/.
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