Birds and People, by Mark Cocker and David Tipling

Published on 22 September 2013 in Book reviews

M21783Jonathan Cape, 2013; hbk, 592pp; c. 390 colour photos

ISBN 978-0-2240-8174-0 Subbuteo code M21783 £40.00

Not content with his examination of birds and man in Britain (Birds Britannica 2005, see review in Brit. Birds 98: 611-612), Mark Cocker raised his sights and reached out to the whole planet. He has now delivered this even more ambitious survey of the cultural interface of bird families and the primate that presses most upon them. Egged on by John Fanshawe of BirdLife International, assisted over 17 years by Jonathan Elphick, and drawing on the photographic art of David Tipling, Mark has distilled his team’s wide canvas into an astonishingly diverse compendium. To season its text, he has included the affectionate remarks or factual comments of more than 650 other people from 81 countries. Open the book anywhere and its treasure glints; start to read and it is impossible not to turn the page. The yield of knowledge and entertainment is huge and comes at a price equivalent to only 2.5% of that for a pair of fancy binoculars!

Despite its size, this book is not an encyclopaedia. Mark and David admit that the compound subject could justify 20 similarly sized volumes. They claim no more than ‘a personal view by two people’ of 144 extant and two extinct bird families, expressed in over 400,000 words and about 390 photographs. The sequence of families follows that in Birds of the World: Recommended English Names (Gill & Wright 2006) but do not expect to connect with every species. The historical imbalance in the human reactions to, or uses of, birds is apparent in the predominance of gamebird lore which occupies 38 pages and is drawn from 248 references. The next longest discussions are of birds of prey (28 from 73), pigeons, wildfowl and owls (11 to 23 from 47 to 73). Surprisingly no passerine family occupies more than the six pages from 53 references that feature crows and jays. Fifty-nine families with no found cultural impact are omitted.

Most families are treated in continuous essays with featured species named in red. Most facts and histories are set across full columns but the extracts from correspondence are usually indented. For the families worthy of continental or worldwide remarks, the essays become virtual chapters subdivided by themes of human geography and reactions varying from totemic to gustatory. Just two examples of major research are the various forms of Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus (one alias being Kentucky Fried Chicken), available daily to the planet’s seven billion people, and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis, again tailed as a modern Phoenix. Just as telling are what seem initially to be minor personal memoirs. Thus the Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus has, in mass-hopping mode, served a Welsh widow as a spring of new laughter and continuing solace. Her salute is preceded by a full epitaph to the all-time champion ship-assisted stray, the Snowy Sheathbill Chionis alba that came back on a Falklands auxiliary to Plymouth (see pp. 196-197).

Given the abilities of the newest digital cameras, the field for perceptive excellence in bird photography has been levelled but David Tipling’s images of birds, bird-bearing artefacts and human interactions complement the texts accurately and often dramatically. My award for the best ‘bird in habitat’ goes to the male ‘Somali’ Ostrich Struthio camelus molybdophanes (a dead ringer for my only one, north of Mount Kenya 60 years ago) but I found the pictorial and costume illustrations more revealing of the book’s core purpose. In one tomb painting, you can see that the artist knew more of the plumages of Masked Shrike Lanius nubicus than those of more distant ducks. So there is no anti-climax to the stunning cover shot of four mounted Kazakh eaglemen.

When, in my enjoyment of the book, I started to think of people before birds, I did experience some disappointment. Looking for my mentors and reprises of their infectious interpretations I found no mention of Roger Tory Peterson, Peter Scott and Bill Bourne to name just three exemplars. Also I wanted more of the avian casts of Norse, Celtic and native American legends. Then the penny dropped; Birds and People was giving me a new deeper thirst for the amazing culture that welds us and birds together. And anyway, I already had Birds Britannica on a near shelf. More exploration and re-exploration lies ahead, aided not least by the book’s well-constructed reference lists and indexes.

To all the book’s makers, I express my admiration for their work and my delight in their product. It is a truly wonderful bargain.

D. I. M. Wallace

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