Once upon a clear day, birds obscured the sun and made such a noise with their wings that it sounded like thunder. This observation from the late seventeenth century is quoted by British biologist Tim Birk-head in his Birds and us. 12,000 years of common history. In this monumental book, he travels through time and through the world to map our relationship to birds from prehistoric cave painting to the present day.
Birds and us is one of dozens of recent publications on birds. It is the paradox of our time: the number of birdwatchers is increasing exponentially, while we are losing the world of birds. Just look at the popularity of the webcams of ‘Experience the Spring’ of Vogelbescherming, the National Garden Bird Count and bird associations.
With their species richness and numbers declining dramatically, our love for birds and nature only seems to grow. The concern is rightly great: never before in history has this decline been so comprehensive and proceeding so rapidly. This awareness of bird shortages is not new, however, it started to become urgent as early as the 1960s. Bird counts proved it. The springs grew quieter.
It is therefore not surprising that, now that the concern is growing, this is reflected in many publications. One of these books, which, however, is not so much about birds as about the significance of birds to humans, is 12 Birds That Will Save Your Life by British financial journalist Charlie Corbett. After the death of his mother, the author goes into a mental crisis, he loses all his ‘happiness in life’ and suffers from self-destruction. Therapy helps, but most of all he alleviates his need with birds: the common species such as the chiffchaff, the house martin, the great tit, the curlew, the barn owl, the kingfisher. The book swings back and forth between general bird knowledge (that swallows hibernate in the mud) and personal outpourings. Sympathetic, but Corbett’s horizons are limited. You often come across his approach in the range of bird books: it is the author who places himself in the foreground, birds themselves are not or much less thought of.
The latter certainly does not apply to bird girl by British Bengali writer Mya-Rose Craig, born in 2002, who develops birdwatching with her parents as an environmental and bird activist. She is the youngest woman to see more than 5,000 bird species, but that’s not the most important thing. The title is taken from her blog birdgirl which, as a student, she kept during some birding trips. As therapy for her mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder, her father – an avid world birdwatcher – suggested exciting journeys in search of extremely rare species such as the Falkland boat duck, the white-bellied flip-flop, the spoon-billed sandpiper, the copper-bellied sandpiper or the mouse camper pitta.
Here too, birds serve as comfort, but Craig does something concrete with them: inspired by the Swedish Greta Thunberg, with whom she works together for climate and bird protection actions, her blog reaches birdgirl now an audience of millions. Her loving attention therefore applies to both her mother and that she also wants a better future for nature.
Bird books full of love, that is 12 Birds That Will Save Your Life and bird girl, but they don’t explain enough Why biodiversity is declining so dramatically. Is it because humans ultimately pay too little attention to birds? Because we only think of ourselves in the first place?
In Birds and us Birkhead gives an answer to this and explains how people have dealt with birds, century after century. We travel with him along the Nile in ancient Egypt, where the catacombs are filled with thousands of birds, and go through classical antiquity to nineteenth-century scientists who had only one obsession: collecting birds, or killing them. Our ancestors believed that man is above animals, so killing birds for research and consumption was widely accepted. In addition, there were huge numbers of birds at the time, thousands less were not to worry. The realization that birds could become extinct simply did not exist. The fate of animals was nothing to worry about.
Also in the broad scope Winged history of the Netherlands. The Dutch and their birds this topic is addressed. In this richly illustrated book, edited by Jan Luiten van Zanden, professor of economic history at Utrecht University, it is stated in the introduction that man appropriates the right to discover the ‘fascinating beauty and complexity (of nature, ed.) fairly systematically. shred, poison, reduce to natural parks, and thus ultimately destroy’.
That is a clear statement and the book then contains thirty diverse essays by as many experts, ranging from the earliest archaeological excavations and the birds in Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ to the fate of ravens in our country, the massive extermination of the dodo in the seventeenth century, counting birds, Vincent van Gogh and birdlife in Brabant, and bird watching today. There are interesting contributions in this book, such as by Theunis Piersma on wading birds, on field ornithology in the Dutch East Indies by Bas van Balen and the development of bird counting by Sovon Vogelonderzoek Nederland by Frank Saris. However, the choice is not always clear and sometimes arbitrary. Destruction of the bird landscape, to which the introduction attests, is hardly discussed in the end. While that is essential. And when it comes to the relationship between humans and birds, I missed falconry, for example, as practiced around Valkenswaard by father and son Adriaan and Karel Mollen in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Netherlands acquired world fame with this, not only because of the way in which the birds were caught, but also because of the way they were trained. At the moment falconry is controversial, and that too is a sign of our changing relationship with birds.
Another loss is the stork, which became extinct in the Netherlands in 1983 and has returned to the country thanks to its reintroduction by skilled bird enthusiasts. This result says right well much about the human devotion to the birds and also has everything to do with the layout of the landscape in which they have to live.
From California to Cyprus
Despite this, humans are ultimately too little concerned about the fate of the birds. And even though the awareness of bird protection has become more and more common, in fact birds are not safe. Habitats are still threatened. The crucial question is: is there anything that can be done about it? This is what the impressive is about Bird’s eye view. A new look at global bird migration by the American Scott Weidensaul. This author of more than thirty books on birds and natural sciences is actively involved in securing the flight paths and vulnerable resting and feeding places of migratory birds in many places around the world, from California to Cyprus and East Asia.
Most impressive is his involvement in preserving the wetlands, the wadden-like areas on the Yellow Sea. Inspired by the ideas of the Dutch migratory bird expert Piersma, he learns to think like a bird. How do birds see the world? What dangers do they encounter on their annual migrations from their breeding grounds to the wintering grounds and back? How do birds orient themselves? What do they need on their epic treks?
If you want to save birds, you must first place yourself in their habitat and protect it, that is Weidensaul’s message. The mudflats along the Yellow Sea seemed doomed by industrialization, and with it the countless migratory birds that depend on it. But Weidensaul and his fellow bird watchers managed to get the highest Chinese authorities to label the stopping places official ‘wetland parks’. So protected natural areas. Mission accomplished.
Still, saving birds is not without danger to life, as Weidensaul poignantly describes in a report about the rogue songbird hunt in Cyprus. Millions of migratory songbirds are killed there by glue sticks and safety nets, they are destined for consumption. The hunting of birds, which Birkhead in turn describes in earlier times, continues unchanged in Cyprus and in many other Mediterranean countries, Malta for example. Weidensaul accompanies bird rescuers to assist them in their struggle and to describe it for everyone to know. He also tells how in 2010 the American novelist and birdwatcher Jonathan Franzen joined the activists with a similar goal. He had to run as aggressive ‘Cypriot trappers rammed into the activists he had accompanied’. One of them was beaten to the head with his own video camera until bleeding.
All these stories make Bird’s eye view into a grand and at times exciting book that is also incredibly rich in knowledge. Moreover, the ‘thinking like a bird’ approach ultimately offers the best solution. It’s a wonderful and hopefully effective way to give birds the place they deserve in our world. The same insight is also reflected in Birkhead when he describes how Indians adorned themselves with eagles’ feathers, without killing the animals, and in this way became birds themselves. Yes, indeed, in the end that is the most important thing a bird author can do: empathize with the birds and study what they need, so that they do not disappear from the globe.
Birkhead captures that impending lack in just one quizzical, almost casual sentence: “Have you heard a cuckoo this spring?” It is not inconceivable that we will have to answer ‘no’ more and more often in the future. But luckily there are always people, like him, Craig and Weidensaul, who care about birds and even identify with them.