Lev Parikian is a professional conductor, a writer and, until the beginning of January 2016, a lapsed birdwatcher. Then, while he was on a simple walk through the park, eight Canada geese flew low overhead and left his year transformed in their wake. The “everyday beauty of the spectacle” reawakened a long-neglected interest in birds. Reviewing a childhood list that was, in birding parlance, rather ‘stringy’, and considering the birds one could realistically hope to see in a year, Parikian formulated his New Year’s resolution: 12 months, 200 birds.
Why anybody would lose interest in something quite so wonderful as birds is a profound mystery. But I sympathise. It’s happened to so many of us. As a child I was keen on birds – on the shelf I still have my copy of Spotting Birds, with its un-lifelike illustrations (already old-fashioned when it was published in 1964), which nonetheless I pored over, dreaming of seeing a white-spotted bluethroat, roller or woodchat shrike. Pity I didn’t realise at the time that the book was a translation from the Czech and came with no warning that I would have a hard time finding any of those in England circa 1990.
Anyhow, the world is full of interesting things and some have to fall by the wayside; besides, we’re encouraged to give up ‘such fripperies’ when we ‘grow up’ – aren’t we? Thankfully, I found birds again a few years after graduating; or rather, I should say they found me. They made themselves too obvious to ignore, from the oystercatchers stark and incongruous on the lawns of a Scottish castle to the sudden white flash of a wheatear’s rump skipping over a coastal rock. And so it is that I’ve been Considering Birds in the field since about 2005 and on this corner of the web (perhaps the name should have been Reconsidering Birds) since 2011.
Not coincidentally, that’s also the year that I, too, resolved to see 200 species. I don’t remember exactly why I decided on 200, but it seems to be a sweet spot: enough to ensure a bit of a challenge and plenty of varied birding adventures whilst not unduly risking family, finances, career or sanity. Many birders see a fair few more than 200 in a year – 300, even – but unless you’re spectacularly lucky the only way to reach those heights is to spend pretty much all of your spare time twitching – that is, pursuing rarities already reported by somebody else, and often criss-crossing the country to do so.
I don’t particularly hold twitching against anybody (though consider my eyebrow raised at the carbon footprint), but Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? won me over from the start by obviously not being another straightforward narrative of twitching and listing, as much as I enjoy books like The Big Year. I admire the way the author set about building his list: for the most part, planning extended stays in good birding areas and trying to track down the species that are usually found there*. This book is much more about the journey, the joys and frustrations of birdwatching, and the assortment of characters you meet in the often strange but ultimately wonderful community that is Britain’s birdwatchers. In pursuit of his target, Parikian never loses sight of the things that matter most to him, with the elements of family memoir woven into the narrative lending a touching emotional depth.
Obviously, the developing bird list does have to feature, and this is a potential pitfall for any bird writing. I’ve read plenty of trip reports that end up as total yawn-fests despite describing an extremely exciting day’s birding. Fortunately, this aspect of Why Do Birds is handled notably well. The ornithological cast of the book parades before us in entertainingly varied fashion without getting tedious. The pace is helped along throughout by pithy prose that’s sprinkled with wry humour, the overall effect calling to mind Douglas Adams: a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Birdwatching, if you like.
Many of Parikian’s experiences along the way will be happily, or occasionally grimly, familiar to fellow birders, from the travails of describing the location of a small, well-camouflaged bird in a large, homogenous patch of vegetation to shadily toting binoculars through a residential area in pursuit of waxwings (honest, officer!) to the reticence to speak up in a bird hide for fear of sounding like an idiot. But above all, Why Do Birds is a timely reminder of the pleasure of watching birds in an increasingly distressing and confusing world. It isn’t a book solely or even primarily for bird-nerds: I can see many uninitiated folk being prompted by this book to pick up a pair of binoculars for the first time. Those of us already devoted to birding will be reminded why we started in the first place – for the love of birds, for their beauty, for the sheer exhilaration and fun of engaging with these wonderful, wild creatures that are all around, waiting for us to notice them.
This post is part of the blog tour launching Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? Do check out the other posts!
*I don’t begrudge him the odd twitch, and enjoy the various ways he attempts to justify them to himself. I wouldn’t have made it to 200 in 2011 without a bit of indulgence; indeed, by my rough calculations, I would have ended up four species short. Did Parikian make it? Sorry, you’ll find no spoilers here!